Passing lightning aside, help of a thunderous running game never lost on Saban | Goodbread

Chase Goodbread
The Tuscaloosa News

A lot has changed in college football in recent years, even recent months, and Alabama is fortunate to have a coach who is proven and reputed to be able to adapt to it all.

There are some staples for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, however, that will never come loose from his football worldview, and one of them is the importance of his offenses establishing a reliable rushing attack.

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That might strike a strange-sounding chord just a year after quarterback Bryce Young broke multiple school passing records – for single-season and single-game yards (4,872 and 559, respectively) and touchdowns (47) – on the way to becoming the first Alabama QB to win a Heisman Trophy.

Truth is, beyond Young, Alabama quarterbacks and wide receivers under Saban have flooded school record books for years. That's in part because they've been wildly effective, and in part due to the fact that the program's 130-year history, pre-Saban, was steeped in run-first offensive attacks.

A lot of the passing exploits of Saban's Alabama offenses, however, were set up by a rushing attack that demanded its share of defensive attention. The Crimson Tide put the first of 20 preseason practices in the books Thursday, and when asked about Alabama's offensive line afterward, Saban's instinctive response didn't begin with pass protection.

"We need to be more physical up front, first of all, and get movement on the run. Getting more consistent and I think having more diversity in the running game would also help. I think the additions we made in the offseason is going to be helpful to that," he said. "I think, overall, we just have to have a different mentality up front in terms of the intangibles that we play with: the toughness, the effort. The offensive line is a place where that gets established on your team."

Translation: He'll be looking for people movers. Guys who can drive block, set a new line of scrimmage, and open holes for a running back corps that's never lacking skill. That doesn't mean Alabama will be grinding out its first downs on four-yard rushes all year – this is 2022, after all, and keeping Young upright will be paramount – but it does suggest the coach would prefer to develop improved pass protection from a foundation of bullish run blockers.

In January, Saban hired Eric Wolford from Kentucky to coach the line. Wolford had a strong hand in reviving a UK running game that helped anchor the Wildcats' impressive improvements under coach Mark Stoops.

A lot of eyes will be on Wolford's unit this fall.

Alabama's offensive line surely needs no reminder that Young absorbed 43 yards in sack losses in a national championship loss to Georgia in January, or that it struggled mightily in pass protection on A-Day in April. But with camp just underway, a solid month before it takes on Utah State in Bryant-Denny Stadium for the 2022 opener, it might be a worthwhile reminder that a rock-solid running game can make their efforts to protect Young, not to mention Young's own experience in the pocket, a great deal easier. To that end, Saban also made mention of play-action passes, and the effectiveness they can have when running backs are a defense's primary concern.

In the era of high-flying pass attacks, the running game still holds a high place in the red zone, on the goal line, and in the short-yardage situations that ultimately decide plenty of games.

Saban's adapted to it all. But that's something he won't forget.

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Tuscaloosa News sport columnist Chase Goodbread.