The course set for this Alabama offense may have been set back in January.
Freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa delivered a game-winning touchdown pass to freshman receiver DeVonta Smith against Georgia in the national championship game on Jan. 8. Less than a week later, the Crimson Tide defense lost underclassmen Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da’Ron Payne and Ronnie Harrison to the NFL.
The defense needed to replace eight starters. The offense was bringing back a young core of rising stars, including seven players who were on the field when Smith caught Tagovailoa’s pass.
“Sometimes you lose players on one side or the other and you’re always building a team with what you have left,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “If we didn’t have three defensive players that were really good players go out for the draft last year, we might have started out with a little different kind of team.”
The result has been an offensive unit that could break a dizzying amount of school records at its current pace. Alabama is averaging 565.5 yards per game (current record: 484.5 in 2014) and 51.3 points per game (previous record: 43 in 1945).
“I’ve never seen an offense at Alabama like this,” tight end Irv Smith Jr. said. “What we’re doing is really special, and it’s awesome being a part of it.”
|2018||Previous best under Saban|
|Yards per game||565.5||484.5 (2014)|
|Yards per play||8.17||7.15 (2013)|
|Points per game||51.3||38.8 (2016)|
|Passing yards per game||341.6||277.9 (2014)|
|Rushing yards per game||224||250.6 (2017)|
|Yards per pass attempt||12.1||9.4 (2010)|
|Yards per rush attempt||5.46||5.8 (2013)|
|Passer rating (team)||210.28||174.29 (2012)|
|3rd down conversion rate||56.31||51.26 (2014)|
|Sacks allowed||6||16 (2014)|
Much of the framework came together in the recruiting classes of 2016 and 2017. The 2016 signees, now juniors and redshirt sophomores, include offensive linemen Jonah Williams and Deonte Brown, running back Josh Jacobs, Irv Smith Jr. and quarterback Jalen Hurts.
The 2017 class may be even more loaded: Tagovailoa, running back Najee Harris, offensive linemen Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood, and receivers Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III are all sophomores.
“It wasn’t like we went out and said, ‘OK, we want to recruit this kind of guy so that we can have this kind of team,’ ” Saban said. “I think we recruit the best players that we can and then you mold the team based on their skill-set.”
All the pieces fell together. Tagovailoa draws the majority of the headlines but his teammates have all played at a high level. Wills and Williams bookend an offensive line that has allowed six total sacks, fewest in the SEC and fourth-best nationally.
The receiving corps includes five players ranked in the top eight in the SEC in yards per catch. The running game, while not receiving the attention of the passing game, produces at a level in line with other Alabama offenses. UA averages 224 rushing yards per game, third in the conference and better than national championship teams in 2009, 2011 and 2015.
“I feel Alabama’s always had a really strong running game, and that’s one thing we kind of preach around here — establish the run,” Wills said. “Because once you can do that, everything else opens up.”
The running game has continued to grow recently. Alabama had a season-high 281 rushing yards against LSU on Saturday, the most allowed by the Tigers all season and the most Alabama has rushed for against LSU under Saban.
Alabama finished the game against LSU with nine straight runs, looking much like the Crimson Tide offenses that could grind opponents into lifelessness over the last decade-plus. Alabama still has the ability to do that. But it also has the ability to do more now.
“I feel like Alabama has always had a great offense,” Damien Harris said. “We were able to run the ball, throw the ball. Whatever they needed to do to be successful. And I think we’ve just kind of kept up that tradition. Obviously we have a different coordinator, different players and different schemes, but I think we’re having the same amount of success that we’ve had in the past. A little bit more, I guess.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.