Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series. You can read Part 1 here.
If you need an illustration of how the University of Alabama’s offensive recruiting has evolved over the last decade under head coach Nick Saban, just look in the backfield.
That’s where you’ll find 6-foot-2, 228-pound running back Bo Scarbrough. Or, a couple of seasons ago, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who stood 6-3 and weighed in at 242. Next season, Alabama will add freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, who average 6-1 1/2 and 220 pounds.
Back up 10 years and check out the running backs Alabama brought in as part of the 2008 recruiting class, and you’ll see a trio who averaged a shade over 5-10 and right at 202 pounds. That group included another Heisman winner, Mark Ingram.
The Process, as Saban’s all-encompassing method is known, starts with recruiting. And on offense, Alabama is getting bigger – and, arguably, faster – across the board.
But there is far more to it than size and speed. Each position has physical parameters that recruits must meet to get on Alabama’s priority list, but assistant coaches also evaluate prospects for a specific list of attributes.
Ankle flexibility, for instance, is a key component in the offensive trenches.
“Offensive linemen that end up being on their toes, that can’t slide, typically have a tough time rolling out of their hips and typically have a tough time recovering,” said Mario Cristobal, who coached linemen at UA from 2013-16 before taking a position as co-offensive coordinator at Oregon in January.
In running backs, Alabama looks for more than just speed and power.
“Even running the ball between the tackles you need lateral quickness: You’ve got to change directions and then get north and south as fast as you possibly can,” said longtime running backs coach Burton Burns.
Receivers not only have to be fast, but provably so.
“Documented speed is a big deal for us,” said Billy Napier, who coached Alabama wideouts for the past four seasons before being hired as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator in late January, “whether it’s track times or a 40-time or GPS measurement at our camp.”
Those GPS times – where a player’s speed and acceleration can be precisely determined by use of a tracking device strapped to his chest – are an example of the importance of evaluating recruits when they visit for camps. Alabama coaches are able drill prospects in all crucial skill sets.
“I think the first thing is natural ball skills are key,” Napier said of what UA looks for in wideout prospects. “It’s really a skill that you can evaluate pretty well, and we’ve got a way that we do that when they come to our camp and watch them in (high school) spring practice.”
Linemen also have to demonstrate a number of abilities. That ankle flexibility that Alabama seeks is a measurable.
“We really examine that if we have guys into camp, we put them in pretty rigorous workout, test them,” Cristobal said.
It doesn’t end there.
“We watch every bit of film that you could ever imagine,” Cristobal said. “We’re on the road filming them as well.”
The film study, the in-person camp drills and game observations when coaches go on the road to see recruits play all create a composite from which Alabama coaches decide which prospects to offer, and which to vigorously pursue.
Here’s a position-by-position look at what UA coaches value as they assess recruits:
Napier first looks for the obvious: How well does a wideout catch the ball?
“Sometimes what you see is a guy’s got that or he doesn’t,” the former UA assistant said. “He certainly can make improvement in that area, but you’re really looking for that.”
After that, big-play ability, the capacity to run after making the catch and top-end speed are priorities.
Then there’s what the player actually does in games.
“Production to me is one of the most important factors,” Napier said. “I’m going to watch the film and I’m going to compare. Their junior seasons are big for me, I watch that junior season as a whole and what type of production they had.”
Physically, Alabama has seemed to settle on a certain body type. Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart – the top three pass-catchers over the last three seasons – are all 6-1, ranging in weight between 188 and 210 pounds.
That doesn’t rule out players with different statures.
“Really, the approach we take within that receiver room is like we have a basketball team. We don’t want all the same type,” he said. “We like to have a couple of centers, power forward, a two guard, a point guard.
“We’re trying to put together a blend of players in that room and then build our system around who we have each season. I think it comes down to the combination.”
Napier likes variety within each recruiting class, as well as on the roster. Alabama’s No. 1-ranked 2017 class includes the top-rated group of wideout prospects in the nation, and ranges from 6-foot Henry Riggs to 6-6 Tyrell Shavers, with weights from 160 to 200 pounds.
Even so, there’s little room for a guy who’s too small.
“If a guy’s smaller, he better have elite speed and he better be put together right,” Napier said.
Recruiting decisions are also based upon need at the position.
“You’ve got to kind of anticipate who you’re losing, what you need to replace: If we’re losing some speed, hey, we need to go acquire some speed. If you’re losing a big guy, red-area type guy, a good blocker and physical player, you need to go get one of those guys,” Napier said.
To an outsider, Alabama wideouts have a certain look.
“They’ve got good length and they’ve got good speed and athleticism,” said Washington defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, who coached against UA in the Peach Bowl national semifinal last season. “That’s the basic that stands out.”
The emergence of Henry – a big and powerful back with breakaway speed – seems to have given Alabama a new prototype.
But just being big isn’t enough.
“Obviously there’s critical factors of running backs like good feet, balance, body quickness, those things, irregardless of their size,” Burns said. “If they have those type things and they’re competitive and they play the game with toughness, you can see that when you watch them play. So you’re looking for those type things.”
Scarbrough shared the rushing load with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, who are of a more conventional stature.
“Most running backs, the good ones, are in that 6-foot range, compact, and that’s what those other two guys sort of look like,” said Kwiatkowski.
Burns said the move to a larger back comes down to durability. Defenders are faster now, even along the line.
“The evolution is … get a big, physical guy to be able to handle the physical confrontations that he’s going to have from the defensive guys, but at the same time having that ability to maneuver around it, too,” Burns said.
With Lane Kiffin running Alabama’s offense the past three seasons, Alabama moved toward more spread principles in its offense. UA also utilized more zone-read concepts last season with Jalen Hurts at quarterback due to his running ability.
Still, the Crimson Tide hasn’t gone completely the way of the spread, particularly in regard to the type of running back it has recruited. Many spread teams prefer smaller, scat-back type rushers.
“Well, what’s happened to us the last couple of years we’ve been able to open (defenses) up and still have the ability to play between the tackles – so you still want a guy who can do both,” Burns said. “We haven’t gone that way where we’re just going to get this little guy, because we’re not going to be just a space team.”
Alabama utilizes both traditional tight ends and H-backs, who are more in the mold of fullbacks.
For tight ends, who often line up adjacent to a tackle, height is required since they have to have the blocking ability to act as an extra lineman.
“At the line, a line-of-scrimmage guy, you want them to be 6-4 and up, a lot of length to them, and be versatile enough to go out there and run some individual routes,” Cristobal said.
Those who play at H-back can be 6-footers as they line up in the backfield and play more as blocking backs.
Intangibles are important at these positions.
“Those guys have got to be physically tough now because they’re off the ball, moving around, they’ve got to hunt up the guys that they’re going to block,” Cristobal said.
Alabama’s offensive line in the College Football Playoff national title game averaged 6-5 and 308 pounds. That’s half an inch taller and six pounds lighter, on average, than the line that started for the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Studying the Crimson Tide on film, Washington’s Kwiatkowski saw more than just NFL size.
“I think they’re big and strong, but they’re athletic,” he said. “They run the wide zone, they can pull. They’re not stereotypic space-eater linemen.”
Athleticism is a top criteria. That goes along with the ability to recover, length, power, foot and body quickness, size and growth potential and football intelligence.
But there are still more specifics.
“Heavy hands,” Cristobal said. “Like when they put their hands on you, you feel it, you go backwards.”
Saban’s offensive lines over the years have had interchangeable parts. Barrett Jones, for instance, started at left tackle, guard and center in his career. That’s by design.
“Versatility, being able to play different positions in the line, not being just stuck at one position,’ said Brent Key, who coached interior lineman last season. “The more versatile you are, the better opportunity you have to get on the field.”
There’s also a preferred body type.
“The cutoff point for tackles is 6-4,” Cristobal said, “and he’s got to be unique at 6-4.”
Long arms and legs are also desired.
“It’s really not as much the height as it is the length,” Key said. “There’s 6-4 guys who have long arms and have that length to protect.”
The stereotypical big, blubbery lineman isn’t for Alabama.
“The leaner the better. Guys that are lean and are able to put on good weight, they naturally possess more stamina on the field,” Key said.
Having the ideal size, however, still isn’t enough. There is a checklist that predicts success, and it includes more than measurable attributes.
“With any lineman, I think toughness is something that’s very high up there,” Key said. “You’ve got to be a tough guy, a physical guy, you’ve got to love football. You’ve got to love playing offensive line, you can’t do it for the notoriety and the self-gratification. Passion is high up there. Those are the more intangible things: the toughness, the passion, the character and intelligence.
“Then you get into the more physical characteristics. Obviously you’ve got to have size, you’ve got to have some weight to you, you’ve got to have body quickness and body control. The more you have of those, the more physical you can play, and if you have the intelligence to go along with it then the faster you can play and really put it all together.”
If there is a template for what Nick Saban looks for in a quarterback, it starts and ends with eliminating turnovers. Whether the starter is in the pro-style mold of AJ McCarron, Greg McElroy or Jake Coker, or the more mobile, dynamic athletic type like Blake Sims or Jalen Hurts, Saban emphasizes decision-making over playmaking. The head coach is fond of saying that any series that ends in a kick is a good series.
Over the last three seasons, Kiffin developed first-year starters Sims, Coker and Hurts into winning quarterbacks.
“Very different players, obviously,” Kiffin said at a news conference before UA’s semifinal game against Washington. “Again, I think what we always do is we always game-plan to our players, so our offense has looked different all three years and it’s always been about what do our players do best.”
With a new offensive coordinator on board in longtime National Football League assistant Brian Daboll, there’s no telling at this point what direction Alabama’s quarterback recruiting will take. Hurts returns as a sophomore and highly-touted freshmen Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones are on the roster, so any major shift in philosophy will play out over the long term, rather than immediately.
As detailed and specific as Alabama’s offensive recruiting philosophy is, it still boils down to trying to recruit the best prospects in the country at every position. Saban has done that, with eight signing classes in a row that have been ranked No. 1 in the country by at least one major recruiting service.
Figuring out which prospects have the best chance of success isn’t as hard as it sounds. Talent shows.
“I like to think of it as if I had my son watch this tape, he should be able to pick out the guy that needs to go to Alabama,” Cristobal said.
Difference in a Decade
Here is a position-by-position comparison of the average size of offensive signees between Alabama’s 2008 recruiting class and the 2017 signing class:
Year: Height, Weight
2008: 6-6, 282
2017: 6-5, 296
2008: 6-4 1/2, 230
2017: 6-5 1/2, 242 1/2
2008: 5-10 1/3, 202
2017: 6-1 1/2, 220
2008: 6-3, 182
2017: 6-2, 183
2008: 6-2 1/4, 194 1/2
2017: 6-2 1/4, 176 1/2
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.