April 18, 2014

TideSports.com Cover Story: The Kiffin Plan

Lane Kiffin is more than just the fourth offensive coordinator in Nick Saban's eight years at Alabama, although it's an interesting detail for several reasons, not the least of which is they don't seem to stick around for long.

Kiffin, who is on his fourth different job in eight years, brings something to the position that none of the previous three predecessors did, and perhaps that's what makes him so fascinating to so many people who follow college football. He is a name, recognizable to the casual and hardcore fan alike, and the only one of Saban's offensive coordinators at UA to previously hold a head coaching position - three different ones, in fact, and all before the age of 40.

It's Kiffin's name that piques the curiosity of fans, but it's the substance of his offensive acumen that has them anxiously awaiting today's annual A-Day Game, the public's first glance at what Alabama's offense might look like in 2014.

Today's game won't reveal much, as public scrimmages rarely do, but it's the possibility of something new and the unknown that fosters the excitement.

Outside of which quarterback will start for Alabama this season, Kiffin's offense is the topic de jour on any given day.

What will this year's offense resemble? It's hard to say.

At various points this spring, players mentioned new formations and plays while others have played down the coaching change, saying there's minimal difference between the offense Kiffin is installing and what UA has run in the recent past.

For those expecting a radically different, wide-open offense, that's not likely to happen, and that has little to do with Saban.

An examination of Kiffin's previous seven seasons as a college play-caller (as Southern Cal offensive coordinator from 2005-06, Tennessee head coach in 2009 and as Southern Cal head coach from 2010-13) over a total of 82 games reveals tremendous balance between the number of runs and passes called.

Kiffin's offenses during that time ran a total of 2,885 rushing plays and 2,815 passing plays. That's an average of 35.2 runs a game and 34.3 passes thrown. His offenses averaged 175.7 yards rushing per game and 266.2 passing. During Saban's last seven seasons, a total of 94 games, his offenses run 3,665 rushing plays and thrown 2,564 passes, an average of 38.9 runs per game and 27.3 passes. While the play-calling tilted towards the run, the total yardage was remarkably balanced, with an average of 197.5 rushing yards per game and 217.2 yards passing. One thing players agree on universally is the simplicity of the offense.

"Some coaches and quarterbacks overanalyze things at times," junior wide receiver Amari Cooper said. "Sometimes it can be pitch and catch, let the playmakers make plays.

"Coach Kiffin calls plays based on matchups and what he sees. Like I said before, it's a simple offense. If he sees they are in man-to-man coverage and I have a hitch route, if he's close to me, we are going to throw a little fade route and make something out of it."

If there's one player who should be excited about the offense, it's Cooper, although he didn't have any problem getting the ball his first two seasons at Alabama.

Kiffin proved he knew how to get the ball to his go-to wide receiver at Southern Cal, Marqise Lee. As a sophomore in 2012, the 6-foot, 195-pound speedster had a show-stopping season with 118 receptions for 1,721 yard and 14 touchdowns. In the five games they were together in 2013 before Kiffin was dismissed, Lee recorded 30 catches for 385 yards.

"Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands," Saban said. "I think between the backs that we have and the receivers that we have and Coop's history of being a very consistent performer, I would think that he'll have an outstanding year this year."

Kiffin has his choice of weapons to work with including Cooper, T.J. Yeldon, ]Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, O.J. Howard, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones.

Howard and Henry highlighted differences they've seen.

"This offense is tight end-friendly," Howard said. "He's got some plays in there for us to get us the ball in space and show our athletic ability off.

"It's about getting our athletes in space and showing off our ability. We have a lot of speed on the offensive side of the ball. It's going to really help show off our athletic ability."

"I feel like we're being used more," Henry said. "We're getting out running more routes, being one-on-one with the linebackers. Just getting out and being receiver-type running backs, I think it brings more to the offense because we're doing more than just running the ball."

Sophomore wide receiver Chris Black went further.

"It's not as pro-style as last year," Black said. "It's kind of spread out more a little bit. We really get the ball around to a lot of guys."

Job one for Kiffin remains grooming a quarterback ready to play by Aug. 30, when Alabama travels to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against West Virginia. Blake Sims' transformation into a pro-style passer continues, but through two scrimmages he has shown improvement.

Combined, the senior quarterback completed 40 of 62 passes for 515 yards and three touchdowns, according to the statistics released by UA.

"(Kiffin's) putting everybody in great position to make explosive plays so we can win ballgames," Sims said. Sims seems to have established himself as the leader among the quarterbacks currently on campus, but Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who arrives during the summer, will interject himself into the competition during fall camp.

Kiffin's ability to draw the best out of his quarterbacks is what he is best known for, as evidenced in his work with Jonathan Crompton at Tennessee, and with Matt Leinart or Matt Barkley at Southern Cal.

"Look at his track record of the QBs that he's coached," Crompton said. "He's done a phenomenal job of getting guys ready to play at the next level.

"He works well with the quarterbacks. You've got to call plays for what your quarterback does best. I think that's what he does best. He really finds out what his quarterbacks do best and calls the game accordingly. Whether that's letting them check out of plays if it's a bad look or whatnot, that comes with time. He does a phenomenal job with that stuff."

There's long been a feeling that no matter who holds the title of offensive coordinator, Saban's offensive philosophy of ball control and playing to your strengths seems to come through in the play calling.

Jim McElwain held the job of offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-11, helping the Crimson Tide to two national titles before becoming head coach at Colorado State. He said winning games overrides everything, including personal preference.

"I think we had total freedom to put in whatever it is that helped us win a game and be successful," McElwain. "I never felt there were any handcuffs or anything like that as far as what's needed to help you be successful. "When you look at it probably the yards and the numbers were always up there, yet I look at it more, 'What does it take to get a W at the end?' You know, sometimes there's things that are sacrificed because you need to think about putting your defense in good situations, or your special teams and giving them an opportunity to change field position or whatever it might be. I think the satisfying thing is the amount of wins."

Reach Aaron Suttles at aaron@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0229.

A look at how Lane Kiffin's offensives have broken down at previous coaching stops:

2005 (Southern Cal)
Passing: 481 attempts (4,157 yards)
Rushing: 525 rushes (3,380 yards)

2006 (Southern Cal)
Passing: 447 attempts (3,430 yards)
Rushing: 416 rushes (1,664 yards)

2009 (Tennessee)
Passing: 401 attempts (2,942 yards)
Rushing: 477 rushes (2,043 yards)

2010 (Southern Cal)
Passing: 453 attempts (3,148 yards)
Rushing: 477 rushes (2,461 yards)

2011 (Southern Cal)
Passing: 447 attempts (3,530 yards)
Rushing: 392 rushes (1,951 yards)

2012 (Southern Cal)
Passing: 461 attempts (3,670 yards)
Rushing: 392 rushes (1,958 yards)

2013 (Southern Cal)*
Passing: 125 attempts (949 yards)
Rushing: 206 rushes (953 yards)
* Kiffin was dismissed as head coach after five games

Total: 82 games
Passing: 2,815 attempts (21,826 yards)
Rushing: 2,885 rushes (14,410 yards)

Average
Passes Per Game: 34.33 (266.17 yards per game)
Rushes Per Game: 35.18 (175.73 yards per game)


A look at how Alabama's offensives have broken down with different offensive coordinators under head coach Nick Saban:

Alabama
2013 Doug Nussmeier
Passing: 365 attempts (3,230 yards)
Rushing: 461 rushes (2,673 yards)

2012 Doug Nussmeier
Passing: 328 attempts (3,052 yards)
Rushing: 570 rushes (3,185 yards)

2011 Jim McElwain
Passing: 357 attempts (2,797 yards)
Rushing: 508 rushes (2,788 yards)

2010, Jim McElwain
Passing: 362 attempts (3,395 yards)
Rushing: 467 rushes (2,378 yards)

2009, Jim McElwain
Passing: 346 attempts (2,631 yards)
Rushing: 601 rushes (3,011 yards)

2008, Jim McElwain
Passing: 334 attempts (2,396 yards)
Rushing: 568 rushes (2,585 yards)

2007, Major Applewhite
Passing: 472 attempts (2,919 yards)
Rushing: 490 rushes (1,940 yards)

Total: 94 games
Passing: 2,564 attempts (20,420 yards)
Rushing: 3,665 rushes (18,560 yards)

Average
Passes Per Game: 27.28 (217.23 yards per game) Rushes Per Game: 38.99 (197.45 yards per game)




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