I like a lot of what Bud Elliott writes and I’ve certainly been on the Nick Saban “it’s the offense’s world and we’re just living in it” conversion bandwagon, but somehow this piece about his three former assistant coaches trying to make their way through life as head coaches just a step behind the master doesn’t really do much for me.
There’s been an offensive transformation in Tuscaloosa. Saban realizes that passing in the current college climate, with these rules, is so much more efficient than pounding the ball into the line of scrimmage. And that is with the best offensive line in college football and multiple future NFL picks at the running back position.
But his former understudies at defensive coordinator have not been able to achieve those results. And it’s not just that offenses run under head coaches Kirby Smart, Jeremy Pruitt, and Will Muschamp (twice) have not been as good as those of Alabama (probably an unreasonable expectation) — it’s that they have lagged far behind their respective defenses. The defensive side of the coaching mentorship under Saban is holding.
It’s too convenient, I’m afraid. For one thing, Boom’s first gig, in Gainesville, came well before Saban had his revelation. Beyond that, Will’s problem is not so much that he hasn’t seen the light as it is that he’s never recruited offensive players well and has a track record of hiring mediocre to poor offensive coordinators, regardless of their scheme preference.
As for Kirby Smart, Bud sort of undermines his whole argument by noting reality.
In Athens, Smart’s is the most interesting case of the three. His offenses in years two and three (2017 and 2018) ranked 7th and 3rd in SP+, which is awesome. Georgia didn’t seem all that shaken up about losing coordinator Jim Chaney to Tennessee, and based on the results at Tennessee, that sentiment seems justified. But Georgia’s offense dropped to 32nd in 2019 and 43rd in 2020.
Smart might be the former Saban defensive coordinator-turned-head coach who gets it and is willing to play modern football. His parting of ways with coordinator James Coley and bringing in Todd Monken to run a more wide-open offense would suggest so. As does bringing in transfer quarterbacks Jamie Newman and JT Daniels. But with the pandemic, Georgia did not get to fully install and rep its new offense due to the lack of spring practice and summer team workouts. Newman opted out before the season even began. And though it is now obvious that UGA should have turned to JT Daniels earlier than it did, as he looked great Saturday against Mississippi State, he certainly was not ready in September following his 2019 knee injury.
It’s entirely possible that Smart realizes how many points are required to win at the highest levels of the sport and that factors beyond their control (opt-outs, injuries, COVID) are currently masking the changes and shift in attitude already taking place at Georgia. After all, Smart has presided over two top-10 offenses in his five seasons. But while the process changes are somewhat evident, the results have not followed.
Screwing up a coordinator hire because he overvalued Coley’s recruiting prowess and being left at the altar by a graduate transfer quarterback doesn’t exactly qualify as failing to recognize how the college football world has changed. That isn’t to say Smart’s decision making has been spot on, but he clearly has some awareness, dating back to last year’s SECCG, that it was adapt or die time for Georgia.
If, after Monken has had a full season and spring practice, along with some newfound stability at the quarterback position, Smart is still insisting on running an offensive scheme that harkens back to the 2017-8 glory days of manball, then Elliott’s got a better point. Until then, though, not so much.
That brings us to Meathead… er, Jeremy Pruitt. It’s hard to argue with this take:
Tennessee is an interesting case with an obvious issue. The offense has regressed every year that Pruitt has been at the helm. The Volunteers have one of the worst approaches in the SEC. They smash the ball into the line with an inefficient running game, then ask their quarterbacks to bail them out in the negative leverage situations they create. They set their QBs up to fail. Tennessee has one of the lowest rates of throwing the ball on early downs, using play action on those downs, and generally setting up a quarterback for success. Instead, it’s clear by its playcalling that Tennessee does not believe in its quarterbacks, so instead of setting them up for easier throws in more favorable situations, Tennessee tries to slam the ball with the running game. And since opponents know this, defenses load up against it, which has resulted in a rushing attack ranking 61st in success rate and 115th in efficiency. That results in unfavorable throwing situations, and lots of them.
“A big reason Tennessee won down the stretch [in 2019] was due to Guarantano’s execution throwing downfield behind the chains or on third downs,” said Clark Brooks of SEC Stat Cat, a site which tracks SEC stats on an in-depth basis. “He was tops amongst returners in loads of those stats. But clearly, he hasn’t been able to replicate that magic.”
Pruitt’s tenure so far looks like a defensive coordinator trying to win a football game played in the style of 1990.
True dat. Ironically, as Elliott notes, of the three, Pruitt was the one on Saban’s staff when it really accelerated the change on the offensive side of the ball. Yet he’s the guy that best fits Elliott’s premise. How long that’s going to work in Knoxville is anyone’s guess.