Replacement for Nussmeier could be Saban’s biggest hire ever
Aug 4, 2013; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier signs autographs following practice at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports
By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Jan. 9, 2014
Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier left Tuscaloosa for Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday, leaving the Crimson Tide to take the reins of the Wolverines.
In doing so, the path of Alabama football under Nick Saban might also be making a drastic change.
Many were surprised that Nussmeier left Alabama, especially given that the move was lateral. No one would have been shocked had Nussmeier left to take over his own program, the way Jim McElwain did two years ago when he assumed control of the Colorado State program. But the fact Nussmeier’s departure came abruptly after the Sugar Bowl, without a great deal of talk about his future, seems to suggest that his decision to leave was more mutual in nature than the mainstream sports media has yet to theorize.
Statistically, Alabama didn’t lose a beat after McElwain’s departure. Nussmeier’s offense continued to roll up gobs of yardage and points, and Alabama’s offense – from those aspects, at least – was never a problem in 2013, outside of perhaps a sleepy opener against Virginia Tech. But the nuances of the offense, the playcalling acumen and the way Nussmeier handled the flow of the game left a lot to be desired, particularly over the final month of the season.
Starting with the win in Starkville over Mississippi State, Alabama’s offense lost any semblance of mystery. Alabama put up good numbers against Auburn, although most teams put up good numbers against the Tigers, owing more to the fact that Auburn defensive football has been in a dumpster ever since Tommy Tuberville departed the plains.
Against Oklahoma, Alabama was too predictable for much of the game, and too stilted when it tried to go off script. The most damning analysis of the offense was in how Alabama largely ignored the tight end and H-back positions for both years of Nussmeier’s tenure. Given that arguably the most innovative offense in the country right now, that of Oklahoma State, has turned production at the H-back position into a signature, the fact Alabama essentially fielded two dead positions smacked of either a lack of imagination or an abundance of arrogance on someone’s part – and not necessarily Nussmeier’s.
Alabama is likely to move quickly to fill Nussmeier’s shoes. The games are over, and any coach looking to make the move to Tuscaloosa has no reason to wait. The question is not just who Alabama will hire, but what will that person’s strategy be?
Head coach Nick Saban has dropped hints throughout the year that he might be leaning toward changing, or at least modifying his trademark offensive strategy. Alabama’s offense is strictly pro-style in application and draws a lot from the old Erhardt-Perkins playbook as well as the current playbook in place with such teams as the New England Patriots. In regards to New England, the quarterback is a distributor of the football in the extreme, and does virtually no work with the ball in his own hands.
Given that the most experienced quarterback on the presumptive 2014 roster is dual-threat Blake Sims – not to mention the oft-rumored incoming transfer Jacob Coker, himself a dual-threat QB – Alabama could be getting ready to go a completely different direction.
It’s unlikely Alabama will swap to the hurry-up, no huddle (HUNH) system, or anything approaching it. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, however, that Alabama will quicken its tempo and make greater use of its dynamic playmakers at the skill positions, and/or bring spread elements into the base package.
But this will happen only if Saban takes the plunge. Several lists of prospective replacements were already circulating before Nussmeier decided to change jobs, and many of the names on those lists have resumes that far more closely approximate what Alabama had had in the past rather than the next great thing on the collegiate offensive horizon.
Still, Saban’s prior statements, coupled with the offensive changes brought into the SEC recently by not only Auburn, but also the infusion of Big 12 philosophy via the arrival of Texas A&M and Missouri, could be an indicator that new ideas are coming. But unless Saban gets onboard with the changes himself, Alabama will only get more of the same. Alabama already went down the spread road when it hired Major Applewhite in 2007, but friction between Applewhite’s spread background and Saban’s and Joe Pendry’s pro-style backgrounds have become the stuff of legend. For these reasons, the decision who to hire to replace Nussmeier could be the most important hire Nick Saban ever makes at Alabama.
Here’s a brief look at some of the names connected to the job so far, and some that might make sense if Alabama decides to go outside the box:
- Lane Kiffin: Kiffin is an extremely polarizing figure. The former Oakland Raider, University of Tennessee and USC head coach has had run-ins with his bosses, with the NCAA and with entire fan bases. He is loved by no one, save for recruits, but he spent a week in Tuscaloosa prior to the Sugar Bowl breaking down and doing and internal analysis of Alabama’s offensive systems. Saban seems to like him, but would need to keep him on a short leash. Alabama’s assistant coaches already are off-limits to the media; would Kiffin play along? It’s also not clear what the NCAA’s opinion is of Kiffin, and there would appear to be a lot of risk inherent in hiring him. Why it makes sense: Kiffin is a walking recruiting billboard, is a bright offensive mind and did wonders as a QB coach with multiple players at USC and Tennessee, perhaps illustrated most clearly in Jonathan Crompton’s ascendance as a senior at Tennessee. Why it doesn’t: Kiffin’s background is in the pro-style and West Coast offensive systems, not the spread. Neither his USC offense nor his Tennessee offense was particularly groundbreaking. And, if Alabama wants a long-term solution, Kiffin likely isn’t it. He wants to be a head coach again, and soon.
- Mike Groh: Groh served on Alabama’s staff as wide receivers coach in 2011 and 2012 and was also a graduate assistant on the 2009 team, making him somewhat of a national champion lucky charm. Groh left Tuscaloosa for Chicago in 2013 to serve as wide receivers coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. As a receiver coach at Alabama, Groh was noted for being especially popular with his players and was an ace recruiter. Coaching for Chicago, he’s had the benefit of working under Marc Trestman, a respected offensive mind. While Groh’s background is undoubtedly pro-style in nature, he’s worked under several respected coaches in his young career and would be welcomed back with open arms. Why it makes sense: Alabama’s receivers were never better under Nick Saban than when Groh was coaching them. His familiarity with Bama’s systems and personnel would make for a rather seamless transition, and he has prior experience coaching quarterbacks. Why it doesn’t: Groh’s experience as an offensive coordinator and playcaller under his father Al at the University of Virginia was borderline disastrous. The elder Groh was forced to fire his son in 2008 to save his own job.
- Billy Napier: Napier took over Groh’s duties as wide receiver coach in 2013. Napier had at one time been a rising star at Clemson, serving as offensive coordinator for two seasons. But his tenure there, particularly in his final year at Clemson, was a bumpy one, culminating in an alleged altercation between him and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. Napier left Clemson for an off-field position at Alabama, then left Alabama for a year to work with Jim McElwain at Colorado State. It took Napier awhile to get his receivers on the same page with him in 2013, but the receiver group finished the season strong. Why it makes sense: Napier has experience in the spread offense from working with Swinney at Clemson, and up to the point that he departed the Clemson program, he was seen as a potential rising star in the coaching ranks. He’s also a part of the current staff and would have good continuity with systems and processes. He also was highly regarded for his work at South Carolina State before moving to Clemson. Why it doesn’t: Aside from a year’s experience coaching quarterbacks at South Carolina State, Napier has little experience coaching the position, although he played it in college. He would likely remain with the receivers, which would force Alabama to hire a QB coach who wouldn’t demand the offensive coordinator tag, which is the exception rather than the rule at the college level. Questions also remain about the way his Clemson career ended.
- Mike Bobo: Journalist Cecil Hurt first raised the possibility of Bobo in a tweet Wednesday night, and it certainly raised a lot of eyebrows. Bobo currently serves as offensive coordinator at Georgia, his alma mater. He’s generally regarded as a solid coach and a much-above-average recruiter, something that is a requirement of any coach who works for Nick Saban. Bobo has served as Georgia’s offensive coordinator for eight seasons and has been on the staff there since 2001. Georgia is a purely pro-style team, and one of the few remaining teams to use a traditional fullback in its offense. The Bulldogs have become known for developing talent at all offensive positions, and while Georgia has yet to get a title shot under current head coach Mark Richt, it hasn’t been the offense’s fault. While it might seem odd that Bobo would consider leaving Georgia, the fact is he’s been on staff there for 13 seasons and may feel a change of scenery is necessary. Why it makes sense: Bobo’s recruiting acumen and pro-style background could not be a more perfect fit for what Alabama currently does. He has plenty of experience in the SEC and would likely be energized by the prospect of moving away from his alma mater to prove his bones as a coach. Why it doesn’t: If this hire is about changing things up, Bobo is at best more of the same and at worst, a step back to a more conservative offensive approach.
- Chad Morris: Morris has been the hot name among assistant coaches the last couple of years. He currently serves as offensive coordinator at Clemson, and has become the go-to name for teams looking to change to a hurry-up, spread-based offense. Despite being a hot name, Morris is not particularly young – he’s 45 years old and had a long career at the high school level before Todd Graham named him offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2010. Morris is paid $1.3 million per year at Clemson and prefers that his next move be into a head coach’s chair, not a lateral move to another offensive coordinator position. Alabama would likely have to bid up his current salary to convince him to make the switch. If Saban is serious about changing up his modus operandi, Morris would definitely fit the bill. Why it makes sense: Morris’ offensive systems are truly groundbreaking, and the specter of being a high school coach matters less now that Gus Malzahn and Art Briles have been able to make the jump quickly. His results at Clemson stand on their own. Why it doesn’t: Plenty. Foremost is the salary he’d command, which could further reset the pay scale for coordinators. And while Morris has been successful, the fact he never coached in college prior to 2010 still weighs on the decision. But the biggest obstacle to overcome might be that Morris’ philosophies aren’t just a bit off from Saban’s, they’re pretty much on the other side of the room. Unless Alabama is committed to some kind of tempo offense as its base, hiring Morris might be too much of a change.
- Rick Neuheisel: Neuheisel has spent the last two years as a sports commentator following his failed tenure as UCLA head coach. At one point prior to that, Neuheisel was rumored to be a candidate for the Alabama head coaching job, as he was one of many candidates – to some degree or another – for the job in 1997 after the retirement of Gene Stallings. Neuheisel also had head coaching stints at Colorado and Washington, but his past has been decidedly checkered. There were NCAA issues and massive disciplinary problems at Washington, but Neuheisel eventually won a settlement from Washington and the NCAA over the way investigators handled the case that eventually got him fired – the now-infamous NCAA March Madness basketball pool betting case. Neuheisel subsequently had success in the NFL as an assistant coach with the Baltimore Ravens. Why it makes sense: Neuheisel was Lane Kiffin before Lane Kiffin was Lane Kiffin. He was accused of flirting with various NFL jobs while at Washington, and caused a minor stir and got the label of a program-jumper when he left Colorado for Washington in 1999. He has always been able to recruit, and his work as an offensive coordinator in the NFL proved he was more than just a dynamic personality. Why it doesn’t: Neuheisel’s background is primarily with pro-style and West Coast systems, and his collegiate teams often struggled offensively. It’s also debatable whether Neuheisel is a long-term solution for Alabama, and his prior run-ins with the NCAA are worrisome.
- Philip Montgomery: Montgomery is the current offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Baylor, although the offense there is essentially a large committee run by Art Briles. Montgomery has a 15-year association with Briles, which could either mean he intends to follow Briles until retirement, or could be looking to make a name for himself on his own merits. While Montgomery is somewhat off the radar in Tuscaloosa, if Alabama wants to adopt more spread and tempo concepts in its offense without going full-on HUNH, Briles’ system is a good one to emulate. Briles also announced earlier this week that he is not a candidate for other jobs, making it unlikely he would leave for another job and Montgomery find himself elevated to take Briles’ place. Why it makes sense: Baylor’s offensive numbers were off the charts, and Art Briles has a history of putting up big numbers with this system wherever he goes. The Bears ranked 13th in rushing offense, 5th in passing offense and 1st in total offense in 2013, a respectable feat anywhere, but especially at a talent-limited program like Baylor. Why it doesn’t: There’s different, and then there’s what Baylor does. Montgomery would be an even more radical departure from Saban’s norm than would Chad Morris, and it’s not even clear that Montgomery is on Alabama’s radar screen at the moment.
- Mike Yurcich: Oklahoma State arguably has one of the most innovative offensive approaches currently going in college football. From a technical aspect, what the Cowboys do with their multiple sets, zone-read running plays and the development of the H-back position – taking it from a position of limited use in most offenses to a featured weapon in the OSU playbook – is the kind of stuff football junkies love to see. The guy currently running the show is Mike Yurcich, who the Cowboys plucked out of Shippensburg University prior to the 2013 season. If Alabama were to give Yurcich a look, it would be the ultimate reach move. The 2013 season at Oklahoma State was Yurcich’s only year of experience at the Division-IA level other than a couple of years as a grad assistant at Indiana. Why it makes sense: If you’re going to go for a change in philosophy, why not call on the guy who is leading the charge already? It would be a gutsy hire, for sure. Why it doesn’t: Almost too many to list. Yurcich is still a relative unknown in the major college world, and his body of work probably wouldn’t support a step up to Alabama’s job.
- Frank Scelfo: Scelfo’s collegiate body of work includes stops at Arizona and Tulane, and he is currently quarterback coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He also worked at Louisiana Tech under Derek Dooley. The connection to Saban via Dooley probably means more in Scelfo’s case than his prior body of work, given that most of it came with teams that were never able to challenge the national scene, typically due to talent issues. But with his current exposure to NFL systems, coupled with his prior work with spread systems and his connection to Dooley, Scelfo could represent the bridge between the two extremes. Why it makes sense: In Scelfo, Alabama would get a coach with a Saban connection, as well as one who has sufficient Division-IA coaching experience. Some of Scelfo’s Tulane teams were innovative, mostly because they had to be, and the Green Wave did have a couple of winning seasons while he was there. Why it doesn’t: Nothing about Scelfo’s resume stands out, and the success he enjoyed at Tulane was too scattered. Plus, it’s not like the Jaguars appear to be the bastion of effective quarterback play. This might be a safe call, but wouldn’t exactly excite the fan base.
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Tags: Alabama Football
, Blake Sims
, Cecil Hurt
, coach nick saban
, Doug Nussmeier
, Gus Malzahn
, Jess Nicholas
, Jim McElwain
, lane kiffin
, Major Applewhite