When Dwayne Thomas watches Alabama’s offense on film, he doesn’t see Alabama’s offense.
This isn’t the ground-and-pound, pro-style squad that’s beaten LSU five straight times. It’s not the I-formation, power-running scheme that coach Nick Saban’s wielded his first nine years in Tuscaloosa.
There is no fullback.
The quarterback is almost never under center, and at least three receivers are sprinkled from sideline to sideline on nearly every play.
What is this?
“A spread offense,” LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron said.
“Alabama used to have trouble (defending) the spread offense,” said Thomas, the Tigers’ senior defensive back, “so they’ve moved to the spread offense.”
Saban has allowed Lane Kiffin, in his third season running Bama’s offense, to turn the Crimson Tide into a full-out spread squad. It’s thriving, too. The top-ranked Tide (8-0, 5-0) enter Saturday's game against No. 15 LSU (5-2, 3-1) having scored at least 34 points in all eight games, breaking the 40-point mark in five of those and ranking 17th nationally in total offense.
True freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts is executing an offense that’s still determined to run the ball as much as ever — just from different formations and through different plays and at different speeds. It’s a scheme that relies heavily on the zone read, the quarterback option running play that’s become so popular in college football.
It won't be No. 2 vs. No. 4 this year. It's No. 1 vs. No. 13.
Hurts, for instance, leads all Bama rushers with 95 carries. He averages 5.5 yards a rush and 65 yards a game.
Bama’s zone-read success this season has been striking. According to CBS, Kiffin’s unit entered its last game against Texas A&M having run the zone read 69 times for 545 yards through its first seven games. That’s a 7.89-yard average.
It’s a big reason that the Tigers were working on defending the zone read at practice last week during the off week. Reporters watched defensive coordinator Dave Aranda lead his linebackers Duke Riley and Kendell Beckwith through zone-read drills. The Tigers are using dual-threat freshman quarterback Lindsey Scott to imitate Hurts.
Hurts runs so often that Orgeron thinks of defending the 6-foot-2, 210-pound quarterback like he would the “wildcat” formation that Arkansas made so popular under Houston Nutt.
“Another tailback back there, you have to consider him as one, one that can also throw the ball,” Orgeron said.
Passing hasn’t been the Tide’s strong suit. Hurts has thrown for more than 200 yards in just three of eight games, but the rookie from Texas wasn’t ranked as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2016 class for no reason, cornerback Donte Jackson said.
“He can spin it,” Jackson said.
That’s the quandary LSU’s defensive backs face against a run-heavy guy like Hurts: stay locked on your man or charge in against the run.
“We’ve got to stay on our man,” White said. “If you come up and try to make a play on the quarterback, he’ll just throw it over your head and it’ll be a touchdown. We’d rather give up 8 yards rushing rather than a touchdown.”
The Tide’s individual statistics speak of a spread team that gets everyone involved, a squad that rotates a host of players in an up-tempo, no-huddle system. Three running backs have more than 300 yards, led by Damien Harris’ 697, and three players have more than 20 catches.
In the first 15 plays of its most recent game — a 33-14 win over Texas A&M — the Tide lined up in only two formations: the shotgun and the pistol. Bama lined up with three or more receivers on 11 of those 15 snaps.
The spread isn’t new only to Saban. Kiffin didn’t run that scheme as offensive coordinator at Southern Cal, a place where he and Orgeron worked together on a staff led by Pete Carroll.
“He’s gone to the spread offense,” Orgeron said of Kiffin. “We were a two-back offense, run and play-action. It’s all spread, quarterback runs now. We were never QB runs at USC.”
He’s still the same ole Lane, though.
“Bite you into the play-action,” Orgeron said. “He’s always been like that.”
Saban’s switch to a more modern offensive scheme is one dozens of coaches have made in college football. Even defensive coaches like Saban are turning to the up-tempo, spread offense. TCU’s Gary Patterson is a good example, too, said Dan Hawkins, the former Boise State and Colorado coach who’s now an ESPN analyst.
“Look at Nick Saban and Gary Patterson, defensive coaches, who finally just said, ‘Hey ya know what? This whole no-huddle, spread it out, going faster … it’s tough to defend,'” Hawkins said.
“This is the game we’re playing in now, it’s becoming an offensive game, more of a spread game,” Thomas said. “I knew that Nick is a great coach. I knew that he would adjust to the spread offense.”
The Tide has replaced a fullback and the I-formation with the shotgun or pistol formation and an H-back, a mesh of a tight end and fullback-type player aligned in the backfield behind the tackle.
Hurts rarely finds himself under center. Even with the Tide pinned inside its own 2-yard line against A&M, Kiffin put Hurts, standing in his own end zone, in the pistol, a popular formation the Tide has fully adopted. In the pistol, the quarterback isn’t as deep in the backfield as he is in the shotgun, and the running back is tucked just behind him.
In those spread formations, Bama ran its way out of that poor field position against the Aggies. The Tide ranks 11th nationally in rushing.
“They still will power run, but mostly it will be out of the pistol or something like that,” Thomas said. “I barely see them get under center unless they’re really trying to do a play-action pass deep or something like that.”
Thomas is banking on Hurts’ youth to lead to mistakes in what should be a rocking Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
After all, he’s Bama’s first true freshman quarterback since 1984.
“We’re looking forward to them coming in here with the freshman quarterback,” Thomas said. “After (hybrid outside linebacker) Arden (Key) hits him a lot of times and the crowd making a lot of noise ... I mean, he knows we’re DBU, best secondary in the country. It’s going to be tough for them.”