5 Takeaways from Lane Kiffin's Debut at Alabama
ATLANTA — So far, so good for new Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
The Crimson Tide survived a scare from West Virginia, topping the Mountaineers 33-23 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
Kiffin's offense racked up 538 yards and 6.6 yards per play under the direction of quarterback Blake Sims, who played the entire game as Florida State transfer Jake Coker stood with his helmet in hand on the sideline.
"You know, the guy's a really good coach now," head coach Nick Saban said. "You guys need to fess up to that. Most places that don't like him, it's because he left, and they were mad because he left. They weren't mad because of anything he did while he was there."
Did that statement ring true throughout this matchup? Find out in our list of the five biggest takeaways from Kiffin's debut.
No More QB Competition
Remember when Alabama had a quarterback competition?
That ended quickly.
Senior Blake Sims got the start and responded well, completing 24 of 33 passes for 250 yards.
"I came in with Blake, and I was happy for him," defensive back Nick Perry said. "He deserved it. Playing his first game as a Georgia boy in the Georgia Dome, getting the win was sweet for him."
It was also sweet for Kiffin, who coached Sims from the sideline, got him into a groove early and allowed the veteran ample opportunity to manage the game.
"He [Kiffin] did a great job," Saban said. "He really helped Blake manage the game. Very involved and even helped him with some of his checks on the sideline, which is what we thought and why we put him there."
Sims' effort wasn't without adversity, though.
In the second quarter, Saban noticed that Sims got a bit rattled and told Coker to go warm up.
"It wasn't in his play," Saban said. "He called a couple formations wrong in the huddle and called a couple of plays wrong. We had to call a couple of timeouts...there was a lot of confusion on the field.
Saban told Kiffin to go no-huddle to simplify things for Sims, and he responded.
"When we did that, he sort of got it back together and he was fine after that," Saban said.
Saban didn't name Sims the full-time starter. But it certainly appeared during the game and in the postgame press conference that Sims was the unquestioned starter and Coker was the unquestioned backup heading in and leaving the Georgia Dome—despite the "or" that was listed on the depth chart.
When you've got a 6'1", 210-pound wide receiver with speed to burn, it's probably a good idea to get him the ball.
That's exactly what Kiffin did, as first-team All-SEC wide receiver Amari Cooper had 12 catches for 130 yards in the contest. Kiffin called different plays specifically designed for Cooper early and often, including bubble screens, slants and other short passes so Sims could get into a rhythm.
"Yeah, he's a great player," West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We knew he was a great player. They got a bunch of great players. There's three or four of them at the wide receiver position."
While Alabama's supremely talented wide receivers—including DeAndrew White (who left the game with a separated shoulder) and Christion Jones—Holgorsen credited Kiffin for calling a game that fits their strengths.
"You have to give coach Kiffin some credit," he said. "They got playmakers on offense who break tackles and guys who can make catches in very tight situations. You know, those guys are pretty good."
Getting the ball out to Cooper early let Sims settle into his new role as Alabama's starting quarterback, and he responded with an efficient performance that saw him break Alabama records for completions (24) and attempts (33) in a starting debut.
Dropping the Hammer
Kiffin's game plan was conservative—as it should have been, considering the circumstances. That allowed the running backs to drop the hammer in the second half, as T.J. Yeldon rushed for 78 yards and Derrick Henry gobbled up 69 yards and a touchdown to polish off the Mountaineers.
Yeldon finished the day with 126 yards and two touchdowns, while Henry had 113 and the one score. It's the first time two Alabama running backs have gone north of the century mark since Henry and Kenyan Drake did on Oct. 19, 2013, against Arkansas.
Saban was pleased with the performance.
"I was really pleased with the way we controlled the ball on offense," he said. "We did a good job on time of possession and a good job on third down. Good balance between run and pass, with a couple of 100-yard rushers and one 100-yard receiver (Cooper)."
It wasn't a blowout, and that's fine. In a game like this, with several newcomers in key spots, you need to hold your horses to be successful when it matters. It mattered in the second half, and Yeldon and Henry responded like veterans.
There's no denying the potential of Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, but unfortunately for Alabama, Howard has, for the most part, been more sizzle than steak during his first year-plus in T-Town.
When you have a 6'6", 240-pound tight end who can run and creates mismatches anywhere he lines up, typically it's a good idea to use him—especially when the quarterback isn't the most experienced player in the world.
Howard was only targeted once on the day—a seam route on which he was double-covered that resulted in Sims' lone interception of the day.
Kiffin himself even touched on Howard's potential in his lone meeting with the media during fall camp.
“O.J. is really extremely talented,” Kiffin said (via Marq Burnett of the The Anniston Star). “A guy who was more of a receiver last year, so we’re working more with him about expanding his game to be able to do everything. The last thing I want to do with guys here is just focus on what they do really well."
But you don't want to ignore what they do well, either, and Howard went largely ignored in the game plan against the Mountaineers.
Running Out of the Pistol
The running backs were specifically successful running out of the pistol, which was something Alabama did under previous coordinator Doug Nussmeier that continued with Kiffin—as it should.
Kiffin's a pro-style coach, but Sims is also a threat with the zone read as a runner.
The happy medium is the pistol, where the zone-read game is possible, power rushing is prevalent and Sims—a senior with minimal experience—is prevented from having to turn his back to the defense as he would operating play action under center.
Expect more of this, and expect increased creativity as Sims gets better accustomed to the role.
The pistol was one of the big reasons Sims was successful in the no-huddle after going into a second-quarter lull, and Alabama can—and will—build off that moving forward.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.
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