It’s been the subject of one of the most posed questions of the spring, and a mention of it even led to one of Nick Saban’s most animated outbursts.
What kind of offense will first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll employ this season for the University of Alabama?
The simple answer is there isn’t one in particular. That’s because Daboll doesn’t have a “style,” at least that’s how he was described by one of his early influences and coaching mentors, Eric Mangini.
“I will say that in New England everything was based off of what works that week,” Mangini said. “There’s going to be that flexibility to if you’ve got to run the ball 50 times because that’s what’s best, then that’s what he’s going to do. And if the next game you have to be in empty formation and throw it 50 times then that’s what he’s going to do.
“Some guys get caught up with the dogma with the…it’s almost like religion to them that they have to do certain things because that’s who they are. And there’s value to that. I’m not knocking it. But my feeling and my experience has been to build a team and build a group of players that can do what’s best for that opponent. You’ll always have a second pitch. (Daboll has) a core group of things that he’ll do weekly and then there will be another group of plays or philosophy that’s based off that opponent.”
In short, Alabama’s offense will have a philosophy of part pro-style and part spread, but what it does week to week depends largely on the opponent.
That aligns with what the Crimson Tide’s offense was in 2016 to an extent, but Saban admitted Thursday morning during a radio interview that true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts wasn’t developed as well as he could have been last season. That fact, also to an extent, shaped what the offense ultimately became.
“Sometimes later in the year when people played us in a way that we needed to be able to throw the ball, we may not have been as efficient as we would have liked to have been,” Saban said during an interview with WJOX. “That was probably our fault as coaches. Because we protected (Hurts), instead of developed him as a young player.
“The goal this spring and before next season is that we can create more balance by being a better passing team to go along with what we’re able to do with our feet as a quarterback — as well as how that creates balance for our overall offense and utilizes some of the other skill players that we have.”
“We want to be more pro-style as we were, with a mix of the spread. We want a dual-threat quarterback who can make plays with his feet, but maybe not necessarily have a bunch of quarterback runs to enhance the offense. So, I think that’s the goal for what we want to do. I think Brian brings a special skill set of being in the NFL, with a very successful program and offensive team.”
Sneakily, Daboll might be the perfect candidate to tutor Hurts. On the professional level he worked with Chad Pennington, Jake Delhomme and Brett Favre. Delhomme and Favre were at the back ends of their respective careers. Both also learned new things from Daboll, Mangini said.
“That to me is pretty unique,” Mangini said.
Daboll was hired by Saban in 1998 to be his grad assistant, coming from William & Mary where he was a restricted-earnings coach. He made such an impression in East Lansing, Mich., that Saban recommended him to his friend Bill Belichick at the New England Patriots.
Starting as a defensive assistant, Daboll quickly earned a reputation as an up-and-comer there, too.
“He was impressive,” Mangini said. “He was impressive in terms of his level of preparation. The things that he knew about us. The things that he knew about the team. And then we gave him different assignments. He came in early in the morning. We gave him work to do, breakdowns to do and the work was really well done and detailed, and a lot of it. So we hired him in New England and he worked as a defensive assistant so I spent a bunch of time with him.
“For a young guy, just impressive. His maturity, his work ethic, his natural intelligence, recall. All of those things stood out. Over the years, we were in New England together for six years, and then I hired him in New York when I was with the Jets as the quarterbacks coach and then I hired him again in Cleveland as the offensive coordinator. So I really, obviously, feel strongly about him, and I think he’ll do a great job in that role (at Alabama). I think it’s a great fit.”
The sport of football is largely the same between the NFL and college, but in many ways it’s a different game. The players are professional as opposed to amateurs splitting their time between getting an education and playing the game. There aren’t as many ardent restrictions on time spent with players in the NFL as there is in college.
But Daboll has the experience of working with different personalities. During brief media viewing periods during spring practices, Daboll has been spotted giving lots of feedback, a most of it positive, to his quarterbacks (Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones).
“He has a really good ability to work with all different types of guys,” Mangini said. “He’s worked with some challenging guys. You’re going to find a lot of that in the NFL, and I thought he tried really hard and was successful at connecting in whatever way motivated that person.
“Some guys are sensitive to criticism so you have to present it in a different way. Some guys only respond to hard coaching, and he has the ability to do that. I like that part of his personality a lot. His willingness to adjust his style to give the players the best chance to succeed.”
As for adjusting to the college game (he’s been coaching in the NFL since 2000), Mangini said Daboll is uniquely qualified.
“Brian also has a pretty big advantage. His two first experiences were with Nick Saban and Bill Belichick,” Mangini said. “He went and got his Ph.D. in coaching at the best coaching university you can go to. From an Xs and Os standpoint he’s got that.
“Will there be differences? I’m sure there’s going to be differences. But if you’re going to Alabama, you have aspirations to play pro football, and Brian’s going to put you in position to be successful not just at Alabama but later on. He’s going to be demanding from a standpoint of what’s expected of the player, retention and it’s going to be smart football.
“Will it have to be delivered in a different way or in different segments? I’m sure it will just because we have so much more time in pro football. But he’ll find ways to maximize that time.”
Daboll moved from one dynasty (the Patriots) to another (Alabama). He moved from working from one guaranteed Hall of Famer (Belichick) to another (Saban), moving from one branch of the coaching tree to another.
His absence of a signature style might be a good thing. Under Belichick, he learned the New England system. Later on, he worked with the “Digits” system, learning it from Brian Schottenheimer. Then he got a taste of the West Coast system with Bill Callahan.
“He’s been around all the major influences in the NFL, and he has the ability to pull out the best concepts from each one of those things,” Mangini said. “Experience is a huge plus as well. And he’s coached on defense.
“He started on defense and then he’s worked on offense. He’ll be able to give the offensive players a perspective that’s a lot deeper than most offensive coaches give because he’s done it, he’s coached it. So if the quarterback is watching tape, not that offensive coaches don’t understand what’s going on defensively, but there’s a difference between understanding it and being able to coach it. Brian has coached it. And if you look at quarterbacks that he’s worked with and hear some of the things that those guys have said whether it’s Jake Delhomme or Brett Favre or Chad Pennington, all smart guys, all really successful guys, and some of the guys were at the tail end of their career, they’ll talk about things that they learned under Brian.”
All eyes will be on the offense Saturday, but don’t expect to discern too much. Spring games are by their very nature vanilla. There is no sense in giving Florida State a four-month head start on scouting. But people will watch the offense anyway, trying to see what the offense might look like later this year.
Regardless of how it goes, though, one thing is for certain, Mangini said. Daboll won’t be outworked.
“Here’s what I’m going to tell you about Brian. It didn’t matter whether it was his first job with us in New England or whether he was the offensive coordinator, he worked the same way,” he said. “That to me is one of the things that distinguishes him from other people. He’s had success. He’s won Super Bowls. He’s made money. And his work ethic hasn’t changed. It’s a great trait.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.
Kickoff: 2 p.m., Saturday
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium