Alabama football OC Steve Sarkisian anticipates stronger run game
Steve Sarkisian felt a little handcuffed in his first year as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
He had a future first-round draft pick at quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa), two more at wide receiver (Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III) and the 2021 NFL Draft could produce two more (Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle). Sarkisian came into the job boasting his track record of 1,000-yard rushers — and he produced another in Najee Harris last year — but still leaned toward the pass, throwing 272 times against SEC teams compared to 255 runs.
The 2020 season could be the course correction.
While losing its quarterback and two receivers, Alabama retained four of its five offensive line starters and three of its top four running backs, plus getting a five-star ball-carrier back from injury (Trey Sanders) and signing three more in the recruiting class. It all adds to a rushing attack that Sarkisian expects to be more prominent and more effective.
“I do feel at times — especially kind of in the middle of the season — we didn’t control games maybe as good as we could have because it was like, ‘Run out of necessity,’ because we were so good at throwing it,” Sarkisian said. “You know we’re always striving for balance. I think our ability to run the football got better in the second half of last season. It’s something we definitely want to build upon as we head into this year and maybe the pendulum switches a little.”
If UA is to run more in 2020, it also has the option to do so with far more running backs, thus no one taking the beating that Harris did over his 209 carries last season.
Sarkisian noted how atypical that workload is for UA — Harris is just the second Alabama running back to amass 200 or more carries in the last six seasons, joining Derrick Henry in 2015 — but it’s not out of the norm for his own track record. In all five of his seasons as Washington’s head coach and his 2014 season as USC’s head coach, Sarkisian’s lead runner took at least 52 percent of the team’s carries and took more than 57 percent of the carries in three of those six seasons. Harris, by comparison, took just 47.9 percent.
Yet, Sarkisian is already thinking ahead to not only using secondary running backs, but how to do so smoothly. He said he has been impressed by the work of Brian Robinson Jr., Sanders and the three freshman signees, Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams and Kyle Edwards.
“I think there is a fine line in finding that rhythm for your lead runner, but also your complementary backs,” Sarkisian said. “Whether it’s the third series of the game and giving them a series, or special situations, maybe third down where a certain guy can go in and and utilize his talents.”
Sarkisian also has the benefit of a veteran offensive line. He thinks improved communication — both within the unit and from the players to the coaches for in-game adjustments — will improve, but their savvy is also useful during preparation.
“I think from a game-plan standpoint, when have a veteran group, you can do some subtle tweaks, you can do some things with those guys that maybe you couldn't do with a younger group, just from an inexperience standpoint,” Sarkisian said. “So all in all, these guys are battle-tested, they've been in a lot of big games, they’ve competed against the best opponents, so we got a lot of faith in them and we're fortunate.”
All of that is not to cast the passing game aside. With all of the passing weapons on last year’s team, Sarkisian made a case that it could have opened some opportunities for the run game. This season, the opposite could be true: the more traditional configuration of a strong running game created passing opportunities.
“Maybe people are so focused on our offensive line, maybe our backs are that good that maybe we will get some singled-up coverage on the outside so the run game can set up some of the pass game stuff,” Sarkisian said.
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