TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The defensive end bought it. Alabama quarterback Blake Sims pushed the ball toward T.J. Yeldon’s gut, then pulled it back and was off to the races when the Tennessee lineman made a beeline to the tailback.
Touchdown, Alabama. The new-fashioned way.
Sims has made most of his plays as the third-ranked Crimson Tide’s quarterback with his arm, delivering balls to Amari Cooper with relentless frequency. But the former running back’s quickness, shiftiness and athleticism has enabled Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin and Alabama to sprinkle in some zone read plays often with impressive results.
“He has brought an added dimension that coach Saban has never had at Alabama, with a guy that can run like that,” former Tide quarterback Jay Barker said.
AJ McCarron and Greg McElroy led Alabama (7-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) to national titles under Saban with their pocket passing, play-action throws and ability to efficiently manage the offense.
Sims is trying to do the same with a little more Shake-and-Blake running thrown in during the senior’s lone season as starter. He has taken zone read plays for touchdowns of 43 yards and 28 yards in the past two games against Texas A&M and Tennessee, and has rushed for 250 yards and five scores.
It’s hardly Johnny Manziel-like numbers, but it’s working for the Tide, which was open this week before facing No. 16 LSU.
Private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield said on ESPN’s College GameDay last Saturday that “Alabama has never had a quarterback as dynamic as Blake Sims.” Barker won’t go that far but does point back as far as Walter Lewis in the early 1980s to find a similarly mobile quarterback, and Steadman Shealy and Jeff Rutledge just before that.
Sims, who split time with Florida State transfer Jake Coker for the first few games, has put up pretty good passing numbers too. He has thrown for 2,034 yards with 15 touchdowns against three interceptions while completing 65.5 percent of his passes.
He’s definitely a pass-first guy.
“I take what the defense gives me,” Sims said after the Tennessee game. “If there’s a guy open, I want to give him the ball. I want to give him a shot before I have it. If nobody’s open I just try to use my legs and do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Saban said Sims has been very effective when he has executed and taken advantage of what the defense offers, instead of taking the mentality that, “I’ve gotta make the play.”
“I think sometimes when you try to make plays, that’s when not-so-good things happen,” Saban said. “You know it’s a little bit like when you bring the ball up in basketball and you get across half court and you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to shoot this time.’ Chances are you won’t get a real good shot. If you run the offense, you probably get a better shot, and everybody else will be happy that you did, and they might get a better shot. So that’s what we need.”
Sims hadn’t been at his best in hostile environments at No. 7 Mississippi or Arkansas.
Perhaps in a sign that he’s settling in, Sims had no such problems at Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. He hit Cooper for an 80-yard touchdown on the Tide’s first offensive play and threw for 286 yards.
He also converted three third-down attempts with passes and three more running, including the touchdown scamper.
“Blake has gotten better every single week,” Cooper said. “We’ve been able to develop some rhythm. Blake’s a great person, that’s what I love about him
“He’s very approachable so when I see something I can approach him about it, talk to him about it, and he’ll follow through with it.”
Before the season, many observers assumed Coker would win the job, especially after Sims struggled badly in the spring game. He completed less than half of his passes and threw two interceptions.
But Sims worked with personal quarterbacks coach Ken Mastole in Florida during spring break and again over the summer to improve his game.
“It seemed like when he came in at summer practice, it was like, ‘This is mine, and you’re going to have to take it from me,’ ” said Barker, who led Alabama to the 1992 national title. “I think that mentality just made him a better quarterback. I think the team bought into it.”