Alabama Football: Nick Saban's Tricks to Avoid the 2010 Championship Letdown
Alabama fans are still on cloud nine after the Tide thumped that prep school team—oops, I meant LSU—on Jan. 9, but they are just as excited about the coming season. Critics, however, keep throwing "2010" around, saying the Tide can't repeat as champions.
Alabama started the 2010 season ranked No. 1, and so many thought they would go all the way, again, repeating as champions.
A lot of that was attributed to the fact that Mark Ingram, the then-incumbent Heisman Trophy winner, would still be wearing crimson.
The season ended in a "disappointing" fashion. The Tide went 10-3 with two close losses to LSU and Auburn.
The critics of the Tide think that same scenario will play out again this year, as there are "too many" new faces leading the depth chart.
Another 2010 letdown? Preposterous!
And here's why.
Saban Won't Give Up on the Run so Quickly
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In 2010, when South Carolina hosted the Tide, Alabama found themselves behind early in the game and were trying to play catch-up.
But they tried doing it with a conservative passing game, abandoning their typical ball control game plan.
Alabama fans—including myself—were completely flabbergasted as to why Nick Saban gave up on what worked so well in 2009: Ingram left, Ingram right.
Alabama ran the ball 36 times that night. That sounds like a healthy amount of rushes, right?
Not exactly. They technically ran the ball 36 times but 12 of those were when quarterback Greg McElroy "carried" the ball. It was the first time Alabama critics dubbed him "SackElroy."
Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson combined for a meager 16 total carries.
On a night when their offensive line was having trouble stopping the pass rush Nick Saban had his Heisman-winning running back picking up blitzes instead of doing what he did best: racking up rushing yards.
Even the great C.N.S. makes mistakes, and it showed when South Carolina won the game, 35-21.
Saban isn't likely to give up on the run so quickly this time around, even though McCarron is now clearly a better quarterback than McElroy.
Saban Won't Be Forced to Play True Freshmen
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Injuries took their toll early on the Tide in 2010, especially with cornerback (and now NFL player) DeQuan Menzie being plagued with both serious and nagging injuries.
As a result, Alabama's fearsome secondary had a glaring weakness in then-true freshman DeMarcus "Dee" Milliner.
He was the best high school cornerback prospect in the nation, but he just didn't have time to get a good grasp on the playbook.
Milliner struggled with the constant changes between man and zone coverage and complicated defensive packages, but he was the best option at the time.
Milliner's trial by fire in 2010 did have an upside as his experience paid dividends in 2011, and his college career will likely hit its zenith in 2012.
2012 will be a whole different story. The depth chart is deep with upperclassmen and sophomores.
Sure, some true freshmen will see game time, as they always do under Saban, but he won't be forced to start true freshmen.
Saban Will Bring Back His Trump Card
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No, Nick Saban is not bringing Javier Arenas back to the Capstone. But he will be bringing back his best secret weapon, of that I am certain.
The cornerback blitz.
Alabama has had great cornerback squads since Arenas left after the 2009 championship season, but no one was sly, quick nor experienced enough to execute the corner blitz like Arenas could.
Arenas was tied for second on the team in sacks in 2009 with five.
It's an effective strategy that completely overwhelms non-scrambling quarterbacks. Hell, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett was scared to death of it (YouTube) every time he faced the Tide.
It's a risky play that requires the safeties and linebackers to pick up the coverage that the corner abandons after the snap, but is there a better linebacker/safety squad in the nation?
There are three great candidates for this role: Deion Belue, DeMarcus Milliner and Bradley Sylve.
They all run the 40-yard dash between 4.3 and 4.4 seconds.
Milliner will likely be the Tide's primary shutdown corner and will be expected to stick to the opposing team's best receiver at all times, so he may not have the opportunity to blitz.
Sylve used to play wide receiver and only last year moved to corner and will likely be reserved for dime and nickel packages. Corner blitzing the nickelback would be a shrewd move.
Belue is most likely going to win the starting role opposite of Milliner as he runs a 4.3 second 40-yard, and he is the best candidate to run the corner blitz.
Saban Will Have McCarron Spread the Ball Around More Than McElroy Did
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Alabama's passing game in 2010 was a one-trick pony with Julio Jones racking up over 78 receptions. To be fair he was the second-best receiver in college football at the time, but Greg McElroy didn't spread the ball around much when he wasn't throwing to Julio.
That year McElroy had six receivers haul in 20 or more passes (and only three were receivers: Jones, Maze and Hanks), and everyone else had fewer than 10 receptions. Teams wised up to this and focus-fired McElroy's favorite targets.
In 2011 only four players caught more than 20 passes, but a total of 10 players had 10 or more receptions. Opposing defenses had no clue where the ball would be thrown, as everyone was a proven target.
Unpredictable pocket passers can be a nightmare for other teams during game preparation.
Saban Will Utilize His Jacks of All Trades
A "jack of all trades" is a master of none, and Alabama has a few players like this.
They aren't used for specific roles; they can perform many different roles and can be devastating when utilized properly.
There are two specific guys that come to mind in Alabama's case.
First, there is Demetrius "Dee" Hart, who would have seen plenty of game time in 2011 if not for a torn ACL in summer 7-on-7 drills.
He is not quite a true Alabama running back at only 5'9" and 190-pounds. Make no mistake, however, as he can run between the tackles, but he would be better used in a scatback kind of role, much like what the New Orleans Saints did with Darren Sproles last year.
Just like Sproles, you can expect Hart to have an equal amount of receptions and rushing attempts.
Second, there is Blake Sims. This guy is the epitome of the term "jack of all trades" in college football.
He can run, catch, pass, bake Choux à la crème, and pretty much do anything that Chuck Norris and MacGyver can do.
Saban and crew have always raved about Sims' potential, but they haven't really used him much...yet. Expect that to change very soon, as he is the Tide's best option as a Wildcat quarterback.
Speaking of which...
Run More Wildcat!
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They say every Heisman candidate has a specific Heisman moment. In 2009, for Mark Ingram, Jr., it was a series of moments.
Late in the game he took the direct snap several times in a row and marched the team down the field to secure the win against South Carolina.
Since then it has seemed like Nick Saban and the Tide have all but forgotten about the Wildcat (or "Wild Tide" if you want to get really serious).
I actually expected to see a lot of it in 2011, but that was not the case. It could have turned the tide (pun intended) against LSU in the first game. It turned out to be a moot point when the Tide brought home No. 14, but it would have been nice to see it.
But I will stick to the idea that there will be more Wildcat.
Blake Sims can do it, because he can run and pass with equal effectiveness, but I have another guy in mind.
I'll say it right now that Lacy is tougher to tackle than Trent Richardson was. He's not quite as strong, but who is?
Lacy is still a load at 6'1", 220 lbs., and he's built more like Adrian Peterson than Richardson is. His brute strength makes him tough to tackle, but there's more to him than just muscles.
Though he's a big guy, he is one of the most slippery running backs in the nation. His lateral movement and spin move (his popular nickname is "Circle Button" are unrivaled. Oh, and he's really fast.
Imagine Lacy taking the direct snap with an empty backfield with 10 blockers.
Saban Will Eliminate the Feeling of Entitlement
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Nick Saban is a great coach. He is the best coach in college football, bar none, and that's not just the Alabama fan in me talking. It's the truth, and his rings speak for themselves.
But he's not perfect. In 2010 the team had a feeling of entitlement. They felt like they could walk in and win because they were Alabama and they were the top ranked team in the nation for almost half of the season.
Saban completely failed to eliminate that feeling of entitlement before the Tide got cold-cocked by South Carolina. That's not an opinion, as Saban has made it a point to correct this (NBC Sports) since then.
Don't expect to see any entitlement shenanigans in 2012, because Saban knows they can't bring home the crystal football again with that mindset.
The goal is and always was the national championship.
So it was with Bear Bryant, and so it is with Nick Saban.
It's the story of Alabama football.
Excellence or bust.