‘Disappointing’ Run Game Looks to Rebound vs. Ole Miss
Alabama's passing attack has been lethal through two games: Quarterback Mac Jones has the top passer rating and the third-highest completion percentage in college football, it has two receivers averaging more than 20 yards per catch, and it had three touchdowns of 60-plus yards in its last game en route to a 435-yard day.
The running game, on the other hand, has been surprisingly stagnant. Senior running back Najee Harris has averaged below 5 yards per carry so far, despite averaging 5.9 during his breakout junior season.
To an extent, the success of the passing game and the struggles of the running game are linked. Head coach Nick Saban has said that the Crimson Tide's opponents so far have focused on defending the run game, forcing Jones to make the necessary throws.
But for an offensive line that averages 334 pounds, has four returning starters and was projected to be one of college football's best, that's no excuse.
"As an offensive lineman, the run game is kind of what we pride ourselves on, and the past two games have honestly been disappointing as an offensive lineman," said center Landon Dickerson, who at 325 pounds is the third-heaviest member of the group. "I think the biggest takeaways for us are we're close on a lot of things. A lot of details and a lot of cleanup need to happen before we can really have a great run game."
Last week against the Aggies, Harris didn't have a run longer than 6 yards and the O-line failed to create lanes for him from the opening drive. This clip is from the second play of the game:
Saban said this week that he doesn't think the run game is "missing" anything; both opponents often stacked the box to stop the run and moved around on the defensive front more than Alabama had expected.
"I think basically in these first two games, we've seen probably a lot more movement up front than we were actually prepared for, if you know what I mean by movement: people slanting, moving, stunting," Saban said. "That really wasn't A&M's [style], and they come out right away in the game and start running a lot of line games on run downs. We probably didn't prepare as well as we need to to face that kind of stuff. We improvised and adjusted in the games and I think they did well."
Harris didn't run for a first down against Texas A&M, but he did have two short touchdown runs. That brought his season total to five rushing touchdowns through two games, which ranks fifth among the 74 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that have begun their seasons. The four players ahead of him have all played at least three games.
The Crimson Tide is 3 for 3 on scoring touchdowns with its heaviest personnel grouping: four tight ends and one running back. Two of Harris' touchdowns against Missouri and his second one against Texas A&M came behind that group.
Alabama doesn't have to put all the big guys in the game to reach the end zone, though:
Due to Alabama's size advantage up front, it likes to have linemen or tight ends "pull," or move across the formation, to run block. But when they vacate their initial position, they leave an open space that the other O-linemen must account for.
Other linemen must also be wary of giving up too much ground to defenders so they aren't pushed back into the path of the pullers. That's what happened on the first play in this clip:
The Crimson Tide's opponent on Saturday, the Ole Miss Rebels, gave up a 73-yard run on their first defensive snap last week against a similarly-blocked play.
Ole Miss allowed a staggering 408 rushing yards to Kentucky for a 7.3-yard average. Three Wildcats had more than 100 yards on the ground.
The Rebels rank No. 74 out of 74 FBS teams in yards allowed per carry, having allowed 6.9 yards per carry to Florida two weeks ago.
"I would assume that they'll do something a little different, but I know how difficult it is during the season to really change your scheme a lot," Saban said. "So I don't have a really good idea of anything that they would do different. I would say they'd probably move more up front against us like everybody else has."
Regardless of the defensive scheme, though, Saban's mentality has always been for the Crimson Tide to control the game and dominate the opponent.
"In reality, it doesn't involve defense or anybody else. It falls on us," Dickerson said. "Whether you look at yards per carry, total rushing yards or whatever stat you want to look at, it revolves around us. ... It's just something that we personally need to handle. It doesn't matter what opponent we play. It shouldn't matter what kind of defense they run, what scheme they run. We should be able to accomplish what we want to accomplish."