Alabama's Nick Saban Finds Unexpected Match with Lane Kiffin

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Kiffin could make subtle, but important changes to Tide's offense

Alabama's Nick Saban Finds Unexpected Match with Lane Kiffin

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Maybe the best situation for Lane Kiffin is for his players to talk for him.

First off, Alabama’s players are saying nice things about the new Crimson Tide offensive coordinator. That’s a good place to start. Center Ryan Kelly said the reputation that preceded the former USC and Tennessee head coach to Tuscaloosa was one of an “offensive mastermind.”

Secondly, Kiffin didn't have anything to say during the spring, which isn't bad for a man with his track record. Kiffin was quiet by rule by Nick Saban’s longstanding edict that his assistants will not meet with the media. In theory, the off-field foibles that clouded Kiffin’s time as a head coach will be kept to a minimum in the controlled atmosphere of Saban’s program.

Granted, Kelly, a junior and a returning starter, probably knows better than to admit that he knows anything else of Kiffin’s background — that Kiffin needled Urban Meyer while the coach at Tennessee or a stepped into a series of mini-controversies at USC.

"It’s going to be different. ... It’s going to be a lot more flexible with the passing game and getting the running backs involved."

-Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones
There’s no one to speak for Kiffin but his boss, his players and the statsheet.

Nope, Kelly only speaks to optimism for what Kiffin can do on the field.

“Now that he’s been here for one spring, I’m looking forward to the fall with him,” Kelly said.

So there’s excitement at Alabama for Kiffin, who was one of the more compelling hires of the offseason. The move pairs Saban, who has a firm grip over the program, with an offensive coordinator with a rebellious streak that couldn't be fully contained by the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee or USC.

Those traits were enough to raise the eyebrows of Alabama athletic director Bill Battle, who told the Anniston (Ala.) Star his initial reaction to Saban seeking out Kiffin “wasn’t very positive.” Battle eventually warmed to the idea after speaking to USC athletic director Pat Haden and former Tennessee senior associate AD David Blackburn, who is now the AD at UT Chattanooga.

Besides, Saban needed an offensive coordinator with experience calling plays in a pro-style offense. Those coaches at the college level aren’t as plentiful as they once were.

“We tried to keep some of the things we’re doing and allow Lane to do the things he wants to do,” Saban said. “We’ve bought into that and he’s doing really, really well. I think he’s a great asset to our staff in terms of knowledge and experience.”

Saban and players said some of the changes have been subtle, but the receivers, at least, seemed to embrace the new approach as much as anyone.

That's with good reason.

Under Kiffin in 2011, USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee both had 1,000 yards and at least 10 touchdowns. In 2012, Lee caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to the Biletnikoff.

Even though, Alabama’s projected starting quarterback, Jacob Coker, isn’t yet on campus, receivers are expecting a more dynamic passing game under Kiffin.

“It’s going to be different,” wide receiver Christion Jones said. “It’s usually Alabama, run game, run game, run game, pass here or there. It’s going to be a lot more flexible with the passing game and getting the running backs involved. It’s flexible enough where everyone can get a touch.”

That won’t be all that’s tweaked. Even though Kiffin brings the pro-style background Saban likes, he also brings hurry-up elements to the table.

“Coach Kiffin likes a lot motion and wants us to get up to the ball, not an Oregon-type offense,” Kelly said. “Late last year we were snapping the ball with six, five, four seconds left on the play clock. (Now it’s) Not so much of the no-huddle, but something to get our procedures up running ... to make the offense more effective.”

More than that, Saban said Kiffin can be a sounding board.

The Alabama coach has never been wary of hiring former head coaches to his staff. Bobby Williams (Michigan State), Kevin Steele (Baylor) and Mario Cristobal (FIU) all ran their own programs before arriving at Alabama.

None, though, was at a powerhouse program like Alabama. Between his time as an assistant and head coach Kiffin spent 10 seasons at USC, six years of which when the Trojans were the dominant program of the early part of the decade.

“It’s been great for me too to have a guy who’s had some of the issues and problems we have,” Saban said. “I really feel good about his addition to our staff.”
 

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