Alabama actually looks a little better than last year, so deal with it, America, you bunch of schlubs-by-comparison.
Somehow, the No. 1 Crimson Tide has hugged goodbye to a Heisman Trophy-winning running back, fretted about the greenness of its backfield and then rushed for 469 more yards than at the seven-game mark last year. Somehow, the defense looks even tick of a notch more dynamic than before, as the recruiting and the fitness may have risen to match these wacko times of kinetic quarterbacks.
And somehow, after winning a fourth national championship in seven years last year even with such “frailties,” Alabama has a plausible chance at a fifth in eight come January if it ignores sentences such as this one.
To explain the rushing uptick, there’s the presence of Jalen Hurts, who last year at this time completed 20 of 30 passes, hogged 456 all-purpose yards and accounted for six touchdowns in Channelview (Texas) High’s 56-53 doozy at Deer Park High. Now he prepares for a visit from No. 6 Texas A&M (6-0) coming Saturday, and he keeps causing defenses to take deliberative half-seconds they cannot afford.
“The motioning receivers and Hurts’s ability to hand off or take off has created a misdirecting, modern version of a triple option,” wrote Michael Casagrande at AL.com.
It just finished creating 438 yards of demoralizing ground havoc up at Tennessee.
“I don’t think the plays that we run are that much different than we’ve run before,” Coach Nick Saban said of Hurts on Monday at his weekly state-of-the-union address to reporters. “I just think he adds an extra element to it that makes the defense have to account for him, which makes them, in some cases, a little softer on some of the things that we do. I think all those things complement each other to help our offensive team.”
At 428 loud rushing yards, Hurts ranks second on the team. At 103 unnoticed rushing yards at this same stage, Jake Coker was on his way to fifth last year. Through seven games last year, Derrick Henry, that Heisman winner, had 901 rushing yards along the 15-game path to 2,219. Through seven games this year, five humans have 173 yards or more, with Damien Harris up front at 572.
At then-No. 16 Arkansas and then-No. 9 Tennessee the last two demanding Saturdays, as Alabama won 49-30 and 49-10, Hurts has treated himself to five touchdown runs, including a 45-yarder in Knoxville. Still, those working alongside him seem to notice two other things about him that matter more.
For one, he welcomes input.
“There’s nobody on our team that wants [critiques] more than he does,” Saban said. “He’s very self-critical. So when you bring something up to him, it’s kind of like, maybe it’s because his dad was a coach, I don’t know, but he’s one of the easiest guys to manage in that circumstance that I’ve ever been around, at his age.”
For another, he seems a world-class forgetter.
At Ole Miss in September, he was nearly beheaded on a second-quarter play, left a fumble on the ground, and probably did not witness much of its 44-yard return for touchdown that wreaked a 24-3 deficit. He replied with a breezy, three-play, 50-yard drive stuffed with an opening 22-yard pass to Calvin Ridley and then his own 22-yard run — and then a fine second half in a 48-43 victory. At Tennessee, another sack-fumble hit him near his own goal line and helped narrow the lead to 14-7, whereupon six plays later he was end zone-bound on that 45-yard run.
“No matter if it’s a great play or a bad play, he’s always got the same emotions, the same face,” tight end O.J. Howard said on Alabama’s weekly interviews on its website.
“I mean, sometimes it almost feels like he plays better through adversity,” Harris said. “That’s just the type of leader he is, and his mentality, his never-quit mentality, the way that he influences — it’s not even just the offense, it’s the whole team.”
To explain a defensive uptick that would seem to defy logic, there’s more dynamism than, say, when Texas A&M visited a No. 1 Alabama in 2012 and brought a quarterback wearing No. 2 who zigzagged madly around the Bryant-Denny Stadium floor and depressed the locals.
The times have changed slightly. How odd of Saban to spot a frailty and address it full-on.
“I would say we’re more fit, you know, and over the years we’ve had to adapt,” senior linebacker Ryan Anderson said. “A few years ago, when Alabama played [Johnny] Manziel my redshirt-freshman year, we didn’t have a lot of guys that were fit to do that. We had a bunch of big guys, great at what they did, stopping the run, and not really guys that got the passer that much. But you know, we adapted that. I feel like we’re better suited to play a team like that.”
A team like that — and with the same cherished maroon — heads into town with another quarterback who lurks in rare Alabamian nightmares. Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight used to play for Oklahoma until Oklahoma chose Baker Mayfield, and while playing for Oklahoma as a neophyte on Jan. 1, 2014, Knight completed 32 of 44 passes for 342 yards, four touchdowns and an interception as the Sooners upset the balance of nature and plunked Alabama, 45-31, in the Sugar Bowl. Knight didn’t rush much that night — five times for seven yards — but he certainly can, already with 65 carries for 502 yards and nine touchdowns this unbeaten season, including a 62-yard touchdown run two weeks ago late against Tennessee.
This provides a test of a theme.
“I do think that we probably, defensively, we probably are a little more athletic, and have a little more speed on the field,” Saban said. “It think that helps us a little bit in loose-play situations, which, when you play these spread-type teams, that’s the kinds of plays they run.”
Now they have loose-play prowess to go with their all-play prowess and their 11 NOTs (non-offensive touchdowns), as if they didn’t have plenty of haves already.