TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's still kind of shocking to see.
There, patrolling one half of Alabama's indoor practice facility, is the familiar: Nick Saban in his trademark straw practice hat, right in the thick of things, directing defensive drills. And there, patrolling the other half of the field and shouting out orders, in his trademark visor plus gray sweatpants and a gray Alabama T-shirt, is … why yes, that's Lane Kiffin, leading basic passing drills, and even playing a little defense by batting at receivers as they run routes.
This is actually happening.
"He's a pretty cool dude, pretty mellow, a laid-back dude," Alabama receiver Chris Black said of Kiffin after practice on Tuesday. "But he gets after us if he needs to. I like him."
From the outside, it has the appearance of college football's most unlikely marriage: The details-obsessed, stern rule of Saban combined to the brash, bridge-burning Kiffin as his offensive maven. Saban turns to Kiffin at an interesting point in his Alabama tenure, with the Crimson Tide coming off a disappointing, by recent standards, 11-2 season that ended with a shocking drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Both before and after that game, Saban expressed his concern with his team's mindset, believing his players may have become a little complacent, and maybe too accustomed to winning championships. For the first time in a while, Alabama enters a season with something to prove.
So after offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier left to try to fix Brady Hoke's offense at Michigan, Saban immediately turned to Kiffin, the fired USC coach who first served as a consultant in Tuscaloosa before the Sugar Bowl, to help right the ship -- however much it actually has to be fixed. Now, we're left trying to reconcile the two sides of Kiffin: the young hotshot coordinator who succeeded wildly with incredibly talented players during USC's run last decade, and the head coach who made mistake after mistake with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and USC, until he was fired by the Trojans after a blowout loss to Arizona State last September. Make fun of him all you want, but there must be a reason he keeps getting high-profile jobs, and there must be a reason why a guy like Saban would move so quickly to hire him.
On one hand, a high-pressure, must-win job that features all players and coaches constantly under the microscope feels like a terrible fit for Kiffin, who maybe would have been better off somewhere out of the spotlight to rebuild his reputation. On the other hand, no major job will do more to shield him than Alabama, where Saban operates with a Belichickian lockdown on access and information.
Therefore, of course, it is a bit of a mystery what we'll see from the offense come fall. Obviously, Kiffin hardly has autonomy. This is Saban's team and Saban's philosophy, so Alabama isn't about to start snapping the ball as quickly as possible like its rivals down the road at Auburn. Alabama will hit defenses in the mouth, then do it again, and again, and it's not as if Kiffin was a big-time champion of the spread at USC -- even if we may see Alabama start spreading the field a little more, at least compared to Nussmeier.
"It's different than last year," Black said of the basic offense during spring practice. "We get the ball around to a lot of guys. It's not as, I would say, pro style as last year, it's a little more spread."
It makes sense. Not only does Alabama have the running backs to run over everyone between the tackles -- a trio of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake may be the nation's best -- but it has plenty of assets out wide for whoever wins the quarterback job. After a sluggish 2013 season, partially because of nagging injuries, it's easy to forget just how good receiver Amari Cooper can be. He had nearly 1,000 yards as a freshman in 2012, and he could be primed for a Sammy Watkins-like re-emergence as a junior. At 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, Cooper is the total package out wide and could easily be the top receiver taken in next year's draft, assuming he goes pro.
"Best of the best," Black said. "I see him every day; I try to steal from his game a lot, and watch film with him a lot."
So there's Cooper demanding attention, but there's also Black, hoping for a breakout either outside or in the slot; there's sophomore tight end O.J. Howard, who's on his way toward becoming one of the nation's best at his position; there's Christion Jones, a multi-dimensional threat who excels in the return game; and there's DeAndrew White, who quietly averaged more than 16 yards per catch last year.
Black labeled spring favorite Blake Sims as the "starter" at quarterback, but that situation will soon be complicated by the arrival of touted Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Ultimately, though, it may not matter a whole lot. Alabama is bound to find someone good enough to execute its offense, and while AJ McCarron played a key role in the team's success as a mostly steady passer and a renowned leader, Saban's quarterbacks are hardly irreplaceable. They're cogs in The Process, and whether it's Sims or Coker, Alabama will likely be just fine at the position given the return of almost everyone else, including three starters on the offensive line, to a unit that finished fifth nationally in yards per play.
What this all says is that there is almost no way Kiffin can fail: no acting as the public face of the program, no responsibility to be program CEO. Just recruit great players, which he's always done and will surely continue to do at Alabama, and coach great players, which he obviously has in place already.
"Some coaches and quarterbacks over-analyze things at times," Cooper told reporters last week, praising Kiffin after a monstrous performance in a scrimmage. "Sometimes it can be pitch and catch, let the playmakers make plays."
For as jarring this pairing seems, it really is a good fit. It may feel like Kiffin has been around forever, but at only 38 years old, he still has another coaching lifetime ahead of him. If he succeeds now -- and Alabama remains in position to be a favorite for a College Football Playoff bid as a likely preseason top-four team -- you can bet he'll land another head coaching job before too long. Working with this amount of talent, under the guidance of the most respected head coach in the game, may be exactly what he needs to shift his personal narrative in the long run and build toward a more memorable second act.
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