Alabama Football: 5 Biggest Challenges for Doug Nussmeier
Alabama enters the 2013 season with an offense that could be the best in school history.
Nick Saban’s club returns seven of its top eight skill players from last season and will be once again led by veteran quarterback AJ McCarron.
Assuming the Tide can replace three starters on the offensive line, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has more than enough firepower to help the Tide improve an attack that averaged 39 points per game last season.
What will be the toughest challenges for Nussmeier to navigate this fall?
5. Integrating the Tight End
Despite losing dependable tight end Michael Williams to graduation, the arrival of heralded recruit O.J. Howard gives the Tide’s offense a pass-catching weapon at a position normally relegated to blocking in their system..
The 6’6”, 237-pound Howard enrolled in January and took part in spring practices, which should help him have a better grasp of the offense by the time fall camp arrives.
Junior Brian Vogler and sophomore Malcolm Facina will still provide a physical presence at the position, but having a big and athletic specimen like Howard gives Nussmeier more of a chance to attack the soft spots in the middle of the field.
With the wealth of talent already at the skill positions, the challenge will be to develop a plan to get the tight end more involved in the passing game.
4. Establishing the RB Rotation
Since Saban took over as coach, Alabama has always enjoyed the luxury of having a stable of talented running backs.
While this season will be no different, the coveted backup role is wide open entering fall camp.
Sophomore T.J. Yeldon is the clear-cut No. 1 back, but sophomore Kenyan Drake and ballyhooed incoming freshman Derrick Henry appeared to be in a healthy competition for the backup job until a leg injury cut short Henry’s spring.
The summer arrival of three additional top-flight running back recruits will give Nussmeier a number of options. However, he will have a relatively short period to identify which players are ready to contribute this fall.
3. Maintaining Balance
Saban’s philosophy on offense has always been rooted in the principle of maintaining a balance between running and passing.
That is evident when looking at the average yards per game on the ground (228) and through the air (218) last season.
With the return of McCarron and possibly the deepest and most talented group of receivers that Saban has ever assembled, Alabama has the capability of becoming a more explosive passing attack.
But throughout the Tide’s storied history, their offensive identity has been heir physical, smash-mouth ground game.
One of Nussmeier’s most difficult tasks could be fighting the urge to air it out more in 2013.
2. Establishing Continuity on the Offensive Line
Although most observers view replacing three All-American offensive linemen as one of the Tide’s biggest obstacles this season, Alabama has the luxury of plugging in backups at each position who have spent at least two full seasons in the program.
Sophomore center Ryan Kelly, junior guard Arie Kouandjio and junior tackle Austin Shepherd (the potential projected starters to this point) all gained extensive experience last season in mop-up duty (h/t TideSports.com).
Another good sign for Tide fans is that Saban was pleased with the way that group developed in the spring, according to Kevin Connell of The Crimson White.
But the Tide’s greatness up front last season was in large part due to the experience and familiarity that group had with one another. While the talent and skill level appears to be there, it will take time for the new group to jell and develop that level of cohesiveness.
Nussmeier’s challenge will be navigating through the speed bumps and maintaining a rhythm with his play-calling.
1. Developing a Backup QB
For outside observers tuned in to Alabama’s spring game, one thing was abundantly clear. The Tide’s backup quarterback situation is the one area that makes them look less dominant and more like every other team in the country.
With the transfer of Phillip Ely, junior Blake Sims is the only quarterback other than McCarron to have taken a snap on the college level. Freshmen Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio give Nussmeier a number of other inexperienced options.
Sims threw two interceptions in the spring game and appears to be in the developmental phase of becoming a solid passer. With that said, he could be the best backup because of his ability to hurt defenses with his legs, which helped him be effective in the snaps he saw last season.
Regardless of which player wins the backup job, it’s imperative that someone emerges from the pack to become an effective option for this season—and potentially in 2014 as McCarron’s eventual successor.