TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—Alabama’s hiring of Lane Kiffin was met with its fair share of head-scratching and pointing-and-laughing, and for mostly good reason.
Why would Alabama coach Nick Saban, considered by many to be the king of college football, even after a year where his team won “only” 11 games, want a lambasted former head coach who had just been fired in humiliating fashion to take over one of the most talented offenses in the country?
For one, Saban was impressed when he brought Kiffin in after the Iron Bowl loss to talk shop, sit in on some meetings and break down some film together.
And second, the things that made him a bad coach? The game management, the press conference gaffes? He won’t have to do that at Alabama.
“I've known him for a long time,” Saban said told a group of coaches at a convention last month, according to Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. “I always thought he was a really good coach. All his issues come from something we're not asking him to do.”
So now, as Alabama transitions into spring practice, and the offense is reinstalled, the question becomes: what should we expect from Kiffin’s offense?
The short answer: not much.
Saban has his way of doing things, and it’s proven to be pretty successful. One offensive coordinator won’t change things.
The last time Alabama changed coordinators—after the 2011 season, when Jim McElwain took the head coaching job at Colorado State and Doug Nussmeier was brought in—the offense stayed generally the same: centered around a one-back, power run game; a heavy dose of play-action to compliment that; and short to intermediate throws to set up the occasional deep ball.
But, like Nussmeier did, Kiffin will bring his own talents and new wrinkles, which could change Alabama for the better, and get it back to the top of the college football mountains.
Here’s what Lane Kiffin brings to the table, and what you should expect from the offense in 2014.
Experience With a Boatload of Talent
Kiffin’s college coaching jobs haven’t exactly been at mid-majors with sub-par talent.
In 2005, Kiffin’s first season as offensive coordinator, the talent was unreal. And Kiffin got the most out of it.
Quarterback Matt Leinart threw for 3,815 yards and 28 touchdowns. Reggie Bush rushed for 1,740 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Lendale White added 1302 rushing yards and 24 scores.
Receiver Dwayne Jarrett led the way with 1,274 yards and 16 touchdowns, and Steve Smith added 975 yards and five scores.
His second time with USC as head coach, the Trojans were limited depth-wise with scholarship limitations but was top-heavy with quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
In 2011 and 2012, Barkley surpassed 3,000 yards passing. Lee went over 1,000 yards receiving both years and Woods hit that mark once.
So Kiffin has shown a tendency for getting his playmakers the ball.
The biggest storyline for Alabama this offseason will be the selection of a replacement for AJ McCarron, who broke nearly every Alabama passing record in his three years as a starter.
The good news for Alabama fans is that Kiffin brings in a good track record of developing quarterbacks and letting them shine in his offense.
Matt Leinert obviously developed into a star, winning the Heisman Trophy and leading a prolific offense. The offense didn’t experience too much of a falloff when John David Booty took over for him.
At Tennessee, he turned Jonathan Crompton into a serviceable SEC quarterback while playing with inferior talent.
And the aforementioned Barkley put up big numbers with Kiffin as his head coach.
|Starting quarterbacks under Lane Kiffin|
|2006||USC||John David Booty||61.7||3,347||29||9|
Whomever the next Alabama quarterback is, he is in good hands.
The biggest difference in the offense won’t necessarily be the playbook, but how the plays are called.
On national signing day, 2014 quarterback signee David Cornwell stressed as much.
“His explosiveness. I know he’ll bring a different kind of feel to Alabama,” Cornwell said. “From what I hear, it could be a whole different offense. Not plays-wise, but how he’s going to call plays. I know he sets them up well. I watched some of his film when he was at Tennessee, how he’d set plays up, how he’d attack ‘Bama when he was playing against them – which is very tough to do.”
Alabama’s play-calling had gotten decidedly dull under Nussmeier. The commitment to the running game and short passes worked at times (see: the 2012 SEC Championship Game), but other times it was the Tide’s downfall (2013 Iron Bowl, 2014 Sugar Bowl).
So while the offense may look the same, the chess match behind it will be greatly improved.
“More important, he knows X's and O's and has a knack for calling plays,” wrote USA Today’s George Schroeder when Kiffin was hired. “Or at least, he seemed to back when he was working for Pete Carroll at USC, before he was burdened with all the duties that come with being a head coach.”
Unless otherwise noted, all biographical information comes from Alabama’s announcement of Kiffin’s hiring. All statistics come courtesy of cfbstats.com and sports-reference.com/cfb. Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained firsthand.