TUSCALOOSA — Nick Saban used to be among college football’s biggest opponents of run-pass option plays.
The root of his complaints against RPOs centered around how confusing they can be to defend against when defensive players are taught from a young age to diagnose a play is a run based on how the offensive line is blocking or how far downfield a lineman might be, yet it ultimately results in a pass.
Of course, as the old saying goes: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
And as much as Alabama has incorporated more and more RPOs into its offensive scheme over the years — including so many that Saban admitted “probably half the passes (in last Saturday’s 47-23 win at South Carolina) were run-pass options” — so too has Saban’s stance softened on the issue, so long as the offensive linemen stay within the 3-yard downfield limit.
“They do create tremendous run-pass conflicts for defensive players, but as long as we control the linemen downfield, I think it’s very, very difficult for the defensive players,” Saban said last year. “I think there was a time a few years ago when it was a little unfair when guys were 7 yards downfield, but I think they’ve done a much better job controlling that.”
For the second-ranked Crimson Tide, that has meant structuring its offensive attack around quick, timed passes that allow junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to get the ball out expeditiously and into the hands of his receivers within the brief two-, three-second window it takes for his linemen to travel 3 yards downfield.
“It’s one of those things that usually it’s timed up pretty well,” Alabama junior guard Landon Dickerson said this week. “With an RPO, it’s coming out quick. By the time that we get to our assignments and start working to the second level, the ball should be out.”
Still, there are inherent difficulties for 300-pound offensive linemen to be aware of how far they’ve gone downfield while also properly blocking their assignment. That's why the dedication to RPOs has meant developing an offense line that can adapt as rapidly as the play develops.
“I think it’s more based on the timing of the ball has to come out quick, so you’re really kind of counting on the ball coming out before the linemen can get too far down the field,” Saban said Wednesday during the Southeastern Conference’s weekly coaches teleconference. “Most of the time when we’ve had issues with this, it’s because the ball didn’t come out on time.
“I think if you try to limit where the offensive line goes to, then you have to actually call it for them, so (they) know you’re going to throw something a little more downfield and they have to be aware of the situation.”
That has necessitated the Crimson Tide placing a heavy emphasis on slant routes or screen plays that require Alabama’s cavalcade of receivers to do more once the ball is in their hands. Of course, with multi-faceted pass-catchers like Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, that can be advantageous, with Tagovailoa leading the nation with 72 percent of his 1,007 passing yards through three games coming after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I think that it’s got to be systematically part of the design,” Saban said, “that (way) you don’t put the players in what’s going to be a detrimental position for them if you don’t design it that way.”
It’s also why Saban’s affinity for diversity along the offensive front is especially beneficial, as Alabama’s linemen get experience working not only their position but their teammate’s as well.
“What happens in reality is you don’t always have the same five guys,” Saban said. “You want to have guys that have diversity and can play different positions, and those guys actually have to practice together in practice. So, it’s not as uncommon, I think, that if you do have to move somebody around that these guys are out of touch with playing with the guy next to him.”
In the same vein, Saban said that having the same five playing next one another helps with the cohesiveness when linemen are often required to work in sync on certain blocking assignments, especially on RPOs where timing is integral.
“Although I do think in the offensive line, continuity can be beneficial because guys can sort of develop confidence in playing with each other, making line calls,” Saban said. “You do a lot of things working together in the offensive line in terms of who you’re blocking and how you’re blocking them.”
Dickerson’s rapid development as one of Alabama’s most reliable linemen is a prime example of what versatility and system-fit can mean, as the former Florida State product has already been named SEC lineman of the week after his second game at right guard following a spot-start at center against New Mexico State when redshirt junior Chris Owens was unable to go due to an undisclosed injury.
Of course, with redshirt senior guard Deonte Brown returning next week after serving the final game of his six-game NCAA suspension Saturday against Southern Miss, the Crimson Tide’s offensive makeup could see further moving parts up front.
But in the meantime, what matters most to Alabama’s offensive linemen has little to do with who’s starting or what play is called, so much as the end result is the same each week.
“You know at the end of the day we're going to do what we need to do to win,” Dickerson said. “And you know, if that means that we're pulling it and throwing it most of the time, then that's what we're going to do. So, you know, as an offensive lineman you want the rushing yards to be higher but at the same time, you know, if you win rushing yards and you don't win the game, what does it really mean?”