The plane touched down about 8:30 p.m. in Tuscaloosa and Kalen DeBoer, most recently the head coach at the University of Washington, stepped onto the tarmac with his family and (we assume former) Washington football GM Courtney Morgan. Seventeen years after a similar, organic greeting from fans ushered in the Nick Saban era, another ad hoc collection of supporters arrived at Tuscaloosa National Airport to give Kalen DeBoer a taste of what awaits him the other 364 days of the year.
DeBoer’s arrival brings to a close an extraordinarily fast process of replacing Saban, who retired less than a week prior. Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne gave himself a 72-hour window to name a head coach, and beat his own deadline with about a day to spare.
Whether DeBoer was Alabama’s true first call or not remains to be seen, but it’s certainly believable that DeBoer received the only legitimate offer. Word leaked out late Friday that Alabama had spoken with Oregon’s Dan Lanning and Texas’ Steve Sarkisian prior to Saban’s retirement announcement, likely for just a simple gauge-of-interest. If so, it is notable – and laudable – that both men held knowledge of Saban’s retirement close to the vest.
So what is Alabama getting in Kalen DeBoer?
DeBoer’s background is mostly at the small-school level, as he won three national championships at NAIA-level Sioux Falls, his alma mater, in 2006, 2008 and 2009, and was runner-up in a fourth title try in 2007. He eventually worked under respected offensive minds Jeff Tedford at Fresno State and Chris Creighton at Eastern Michigan before heading to Indiana as offensive coordinator, which led to getting the head coaching job at Washington.
While DeBoer’s resume is light on FBS head coaching experience, the potential for greatness is certainly there. One of the most-quoted statistics regarding DeBoer this week has been his success in head-to-head matchups against Lanning, Sarkisian and USC head coach Lincoln Riley; DeBoer is undefeated in his matchups against all three.
DeBoer was a former wide receiver at Sioux Falls and cut his teeth as offensive coordinator there after a brief foray into high school coaching. He coached wide receivers at Southern Illinois before coaching quarterbacks for the first time at Eastern Michigan. Since taking over at Washington, he, along with long-time offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb – who many believe will eventually join DeBoer in Tuscaloosa – have been the architects of one of the most the most innovative passing-based offenses in college football.
What will Alabama’s systems be like under DeBoer?
Assuming DeBoer brings his Washington philosophy to his new position, Alabama’s offense will become one of the most dynamic pass-heavy offenses in the SEC. DeBoer’s offensive system is a hybrid of traditional Air Raid concepts and spread-based concepts currently seen in both Steve Sarkisian’s and especially Josh Heupel’s playcalling repertoire. The goal of DeBoer’s offensive philosophy, simply stated, is to stretch defenses both vertically and horizontally at the same time.
The difference in DeBoer’s base philosophy and other Air Raid variants is his use of tight ends and the inclusion of a fairly physical running game component. Mike Leach’s traditional Air Raid, for instance, featured no tight ends – his teams didn’t even carry a situational tight end on the roster. DeBoer utilized four tight ends at Washington in 2023, and they combined for the following stat line: 68 receptions, 815 yards, 12.0 avg., 8 TD.
Washington had two receivers eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Rome Odunze caught 92 passes for 1,640 yards (17.8 avg.) and 13 touchdowns, while Ja’Lynn Polk caught 69 passes for 1,159 yards (16.8 avg.) and 9 touchdowns. Washington didn’t neglect the running game, as former Mississippi State transfer Dillon Johnson carried the ball 233 times for 1,195 yards (5.1 avg.) and 16 touchdowns, and added 24 receptions for 190 yards (7.9 avg). Quarterback Michael Penix was 363-of-555 (65.4%) for 4,903 yards, 36 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Check out the links below to get a taste of what’s coming to Tuscaloosa, offensively:
Defensively, Washington was as different from Alabama, both in scheme and performance, as it could possibly be. The Huskies utilize a 4-2-5 base defense, which in practice is most similar to Alabama’s 2-4-5 sub front. Washington plays two defensive tackles and two positions labeled “Edge,” which are upsized outside linebackers. The starters there this year were Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who measured 6’4” and 255 pounds, and Bralen Trice, who is 6’4” and 275 pounds.
Washington’s defensive metrics were not the best; the Huskies ranked 96th in total defense, but were very respectable in raw pass defense (31st) and top-half in rush defense (58th). The biggest issue was pass efficiency defense, which came in at a dismal 117th. Still, Washington was 26th in third-down defense (albeit 63rd in fourth-down defense) and 54th in scoring defense. The Husky defense struggled in the red zone, ranking 84th. They were dead last in the country in the number of first downs yielded and were one of the most-penalized teams in the country, ranking 123rd in penalties per game and 124th in penalty yardage per game.
All of Washington’s defensive numbers should improve with access to better talent that DeBoer will find more plentiful in Alabama’s immediate recruiting territory, but the same two-way loyalty that has held the core of Washington’s offensive staff together also means the defensive staff may arrive in Tuscaloosa as a unit. Alabama has at least two holdover defensive coaches – secondary coach Travaris Robinson and inside linebackers coach Robert Bala – who are considered future stars, and defensive line coach Freddie Roach’s name is rumored to be one of the coaches DeBoer might like to retain, although Roach is rumored to be heading to Texas for the 2024 season.
Unless DeBoer chooses to go with a defensive coordinator firmly rooted in Saban’s 3-4 over/under defense, expect Alabama’s defense to lose a lot of the complexity it has shown over the last 17 years, and become a good bit more basic. There will also be an opportunity for players who didn’t have a clear fit in the old defense to get a fresh look if the defensive base changes.
For now, we would expect Alabama to transition to Washington’s offensive and defensive schemes unless DeBoer decides otherwise.
Is DeBoer’s unconventional background going to prove to be an impediment to success?
In the modern game, not likely. Many of the best coaches in college football at the moment came up the way DeBoer did, finding success at lower levels rather than following the more traditional path of assistant-coordinator-head coach at an FBS school.
TideFans.com has long subscribed to this alternate path in our frequent “Rating the Coaches” articles. Brian Kelly, long a respected member of our lists, was first profiled here as he moved from Grand Valley State to Central Michigan. Others who have followed similar paths over the years included Jerry Kill, Jim Harbaugh, Dennis Franchione, Hugh Freeze and Jim Tressel.
There will be a break-in period, of course, with one of DeBoer’s most immediate challenges being to become familiar with local high school coaches, and earn their trust. It won’t be an overnight process, but it will be a necessary one, and DeBoer bringing Courtney Morgan with him to help manage player personnel issues is a significant plus.
DeBoer is also not without some connections to the area. Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield coached at Vanderbilt for a season, and Jerret McElwain, one of Washington’s recruiting support staff members, is the son of former Alabama assistant Jim McElwain and worked on Nick Saban’s support staff at one time himself. Despite many in the media wanting to talk about the culture shock of Alabama hiring a “West Coast coach,” most of DeBoer’s coaching experience is in the Midwest and Great Plains regions of the country, and his upbringing in rural South Dakota should have some commonalities with some of the areas he will visit in this region.
DeBoer’s first two tasks will be settling on a staff, and re-recruiting the current Alabama roster. Wide receiver Isaiah Bond entered the transfer portal Friday, and is expected to join the Texas Longhorns. DeBoer will need to meet soon with all the players, but perhaps even more importantly, meet with those who are either currently in the transfer portal or who are considering entry into it. Offensive players, particularly those like RB Roydell Williams, TE Miles Kitselman and WR Shazz Preston, could possibly reconsider their decision to leave the program. DeBoer also needs to develop a relationship with erstwhile wide receiver commitment Ryan Williams as soon as possible. DeBoer will have plenty to sell especially to offensive players, given that Washington rolled up nearly 7,000 yards of total offense last year.
Staff selection will be equally important, and DeBoer will need to decide whether he will continue to try to hold a long-standing staff together, or look for opportunities to improve or change what he’s been doing lately. Alabama’s offensive roster is easily transferable to a more wide-open scheme, but changing the defense wholesale from a 3-4 over/under to a traditional 4-2-5 alignment is a shock treatment. Alabama fans should expect some ugly defensive sequences in 2024 until the changes take hold; historically in the SEC, systemic changes to either the offense or the defense come with a break-in period.
In the end, the selection of Kalen DeBoer is a sound one at worst, and a potentially breakthrough hire on the top end. Nick Saban himself has said that college football was once dominated by great defensive teams, but is now controlled by top offensive teams. In Kalen DeBoer, Alabama has hired one of the leaders in offensive innovation.
Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN