The Alabama preparations have begun at WVU, but truth be told, they began long ago. Tony Gibson gave his defense something to work on every day during camp, but the defensive coordinator got started long before that, if only in his head.
He’s going to keep a lot of his thoughts to himself, and that’s understood, as well as countered on the other side of the field. But we agree on one simple premise: There’s a good bit of mystery involved with getting ready for the Crimson Tide based on what Gibson does and does not know.
For starters, Alabama has a new offensive coordinator. You may have heard of Lane Kiffin somewhere along the line. A guy like that, you figure he’s going to do what he does — and say what you will, but he does have offensive acumen. Some Heisman Trophy winners and juggernaut offenses will attest to that.
But Gibson has experienced Kiffin previously. He was on the Arizona staff in 2012 when the Wildcats beat the Trojans, though that one’s not going in the Jeff Casteel Time Capsule. Still, Gibson has prepared for the offense before and I’d imagine he’s taken notes as he reviewed that film of late and I bet he probably remembered notes he took after that game two seasons ago.
And you better believe he highlighted this: Marqise Lee: 16-345-2
Kiffin has always liked to get the ball to his playmakers, of which there have been many. Alabama has a preseason All-America receiver named Amari Cooper, who somehow only caught 45 passes last season.
Kiffin really likes to use his running backs in the passing game, whether with USC, the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and then back again at USC — thought not as much in that three-plus year tour. Alabama has three ridiculously talented running backs who combined for just 33 catches last season. Kiffin’s fullback had 32 in 2012 at USC.
Surely, the Alabama backs will get passes. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake can catch it and go — and Drake has apparently been a revelation in camp — but Derrick Henry might be the best of the bunch … even if this was his only catch last season.
So, yeah, that’s going to change.
Well, Alabama’s offense is not broken, but is renowned for playing in the middle of the field and winning battles by being tougher and more sound in tight spaces. That’s not been Kiffin’s style. So does Kiffin create some space, does he spread things out to incorporate Cooper and Christion Jones, to isolate the three running backs, to break out a 6-foot-6, 240 pound tight end who can run?
Or is Alabama still Alabama and Kiffin is doing what the Crimson Tide has done for so long and so well?
“That’s the million-dollar question: What are they going to do?” he said. “If you go back and break down USC and you break down Alabama, they’re not the same. Are they going to go 50-50? Is it ‘He’s got to do all our stuff and learn it?’ Or is it ‘We’re wholesale changing it and doing what Kiffin does?’”
What we do know is Kiffin has promised — or, more likely, Nick Saban has sanctioned — “very small changes.” Alabama has turned a H-back into a fullback. It had mostly been a singleback system under Doug Nussmeier. The tight end has been matched up in favorable spots. There was even some tempo between plays, though that’s not as much about a hurry up philosophy as it is about imposing the Alabama will on opponents sooner and more often.
But here’s the biggest baffler of them all. Gibson, and seemingly Alabama, has no idea who will be the starting quarterback. It could be Jacob Coker, who had been at Florida State before transferring to Alabama, or it could be Blake Sims, who is more revered as a runner and actually was a tailback in 2011.
Gibson called them “totally different” players and expects the offense will behave differently when one trots off the field and the other comes in from the sideline. But here’s the thing: What will their offenses look like? WVU doesn’t know. It’s hasn’t seen Coker play Alabama’s offense yet because he wasn’t enrolled for spring football. Sims was mediocre in the spring game and didn’t do any running QB stuff he’s known/expected to do, nor did he do much of that when he mopped up after A.J. McCarron. All Saban has said so far is he wants one to assert himself in a leadership role, but that he’s comfortable using both. So WVU prepares for both.
“I won’t be surprised if both of them do play,” Gibson said. “I’m sure they have a package — if Coker is the guy — so they can throw Sims in at quarterback and do some different things with him.
“That’s the hard thing about the first game. What are they going to do? That’s why we have to get honed in on what we do, on what we do well, so we can go out and execute against whatever it is they do. We have to be ready for anything early on and be able to adjust and get the kids on the same page and say, ‘OK, here’s their plan of attack.’”