TUSCALOOSA — From his spot on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium sideline during his first-quarter suspension last Saturday, DeVonta Smith was provided a rare perspective into his new offensive coordinator’s mind.
Unable to play due to an unspecified lapse in judgement during preseason play, one that cost the third-year receiver and three other junior teammates the first quarter of action in Saturday’s 42-3 win over Duke, Smith got a bird’s-eye view of the how and why of Steve Sarkisian as a play caller.
“I would say it definitely taught me a lesson, but it kind of opened up the things we were trying to do on offense,” Smith said Tuesday. “I saw things, looking from the sidelines, seeing things (we were calling) and what Coach Sark was really trying to do.”
Sarkisian returned to Tuscaloosa in January after a two-year sabbatical with the Atlanta Falcons, which followed a four-month stint as an offensive analyst at Alabama during the 2016 season. It ended unceremoniously with a 35-31 loss to Clemson in the national championship game in which Sarkisian served as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator after Lane Kiffin’s abrupt mid-playoff departure.
Since then, Sarkisian has worked to put his own stamp on a transformative offense that reset the program standard for scoring and passing last season in one year under Mike Locksley, who turned that effort into a “dream” opportunity as Maryland’s head coach.
How Sarkisian has done that remains a state secret around the athletic complex, but Smith and other Alabama players have provided occasional glimpses into what its offense could look like this season.
“It’s hard to go into detail of it, but just the schemes (Sarkisian is) trying to do, the meaning of everything from the run plays to the pass plays to the RPOs, the way you read it,” Smith said. “Once you see it from the sidelines, you’re like, ‘Oh ok, that’s why he’s doing this.’”
Alabama took a couple of shots downfield, including a long play-action incompletion to junior receiver Jerry Jeudy on the second play of the team’s third offensive series. But, for the most part, the game plan appeared to be centered around establishing the run and methodically utilizing a quick-strike passing attack to the perimeter to get the Crimson Tide playmakers the ball in space, especially after a frustratingly slow start on its first two series.
It certainly fit what Sarkisian himself identified as his personal offensive philosophy during his only media appearance in early August.
“Well I think it starts in running the football. … You have to have the ability to run the football, and when you can run the football, you can play-action pass,” Sarkisian said in early August. “The play-action pass game is a quarterback’s best friend to where defenses are trying to stop the run and now you can create throwing lanes down the field for explosive plays. And then (you can have) an efficient passing game, high percentage completion-type passing game where you get the ball in your playmaker’s hands in space to go create plays.”
Sarkisian’s plan was evident from the start, even if it wasn’t quite effective early on without some of his better options available at running back (junior starters Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. were also suspended for the first quarter Saturday). That and a second-series fumble by redshirt freshman tailback Jerome Ford severely inhibited Alabama’s offense from getting going in the opening quarter. But that changed once Sarkisian had all his playmakers available.
“I think that Sark did a good job in the game,” Saban said after Saturday’s game. “… I think we started out a little bit maybe trying to run the ball and then we just decided, hey, the way they're playing, we're going to have to throw the ball on first down and get the ball to our playmakers' hands on the perimeter and make them play on the perimeter.”
Alabama racked up 512 yards of total offense Saturday, including 336 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-31 passing from junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, with much of that coming as part of the team’s combined 268 yards after the catch.
Sarkisian also showed off some of his West Coast tendencies throughout, including on a first-quarter play by Jeudy in which the Biletnikoff Award winner turned a 9-yard curl route into a 14-yard gain after twice spinning out of tackles . That was part of four straight completions for Tagovailoa in the midst of a 12-play, 62-yard drive that stalled when freshman kicker Will Reichard clanked a 49-yard field goal try off the right upright.
Alabama finished with six series of seven or more plays, four of which ended in touchdowns, including the team’s first score coming at the end of a 12-play, 80-yard drive that lasted nearly 6 minutes. The Tide also produced a nine-play, 90-yard drive that lasted 4:20 and was capped by a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jeudy for a 35-3 lead late in the third quarter.
"I feel like we was more play-by-play,” said Jeudy, who finished with a career-high 10 catches for 137 yards, including 85 after-the-catch. “You know, last year we were more like score fast, score fast, big play, score fast. This year, we’re like taking it slow play-by-play. I feel like that was just us the first half, but the second half we did a lot better on taking advantage of our plays."
That methodical approach was credited to what Duke did defensively, which allowed for more short, quick passes as opposed to many deep shots. Still, as Alabama prepares for this weekend’s home opener against New Mexico State, the downfield passing game could open up more.
Whether that means more “Red” personnel — a four-receiver, zero-tight end set — than was utilized in the opener is yet to be seen, but one thing’s clear after Week 1: Sarkisian is going to take advantage of whatever mismatches are available to him in the game.
“I’m looking forward to it, I just really want to see how, with us being out there (together), how things are going to be called,” Smith said. “You game plan for different teams and you have different things certain ways. You can’t just go out there every game and go Red. Depending on who the opponent is, you’re going to game plan and go with whatever personnel you want to.”