One year later, Ryan Grubb will have the chance to run Alabama’s offense. The Crimson Tide offensive coordinator was a candidate for the opening last year under Nick Saban but elected to stay at Washington. Now, he and head coach Kalen DeBoer, who have worked together for the last 16 seasons, are charged with replicating their success at Washington in the SEC.
The innovative coaching tandem inherited some valuable, foundational pieces, including quarterback Jalen Milroe, running backs Jam Miller and Justice Haynes, offensive lineman Tyler Booker and more. It’s a collective effort to build the offense, but DeBoer does not micromanage Grubb, who enjoys the freedom to call the offense as he sees fit.
“The freedom Kalen gives me, he’s a resource and a sounding board,” Grubb said in an in-depth interview with The Athletic before Washington’s Sugar Bowl win over Texas on New Year’s Day. “He’s not an overbearing guy.”
DeBoer and Grubb have produced everywhere they’ve been, and this past season at Washington, they led arguably the most dynamic offense in college football. During the Huskies’ 14-1 season, they often looked one step ahead of the opposition, embracing a motion-heavy offense that was predicated on confounding the defense as much as possible.
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“I think people are always surprised when they see our guys come out and we’re shifting in motion and moving with backs one or two, jumping into empty sets,” Grubb said. “They think, ‘How the hell are you doing that?’ Well, a lot of work. That’s how. The kids love it though.
“We should be, by definition, offensive. We should always be on the attack. Not vice versa.”
What will Alabama’s offense look like in 2024 under Grubb? Personnel dictates the scheme, so to some degree, the answer’s a work in progress. But overall, expect an aggressive attack with one core philosophy: create space to exploit one-on-one advantages.
The latest Alabama football film study takes a closer look at DeBoer and Grubb’s offense and what it means for Alabama’s 2024 roster.
The system, of course, starts with the quarterback. And Alabama returns Jalen Milroe, an early 2024 Heisman candidate. First and foremost, expect a more balanced offense this fall.
The offenses at Washington and Alabama in 2023 were essentially opposites: Alabama ran the ball 63 percent of the time and Milroe had the third-fewest pass attempts of the Saban era (284). Conversely, Washington passed the ball 58 percent of the time and Michael Penix Jr. led the nation in pass attempts (556). That should change in 2024. First, Milroe took a significant step forward in 2023 and will no doubt throw the ball more next fall, and utilizing him in the run game will be much more of a focus for DeBoer and Grubb than it was with Penix. Factor in Alabama’s talented group of running backs, and the number of pass attempts and rushes should be much closer than last season.
One thing Milroe and Penix had in common last season was the deep ball. Milroe ranked third nationally in yards per attempt (9.98) while Penix ranked 17th (8.83), and both were among the best deep ball passers in the country. According to TruMedia, here’s how each fared on passes of 15-plus yards downfield:
- Penix Jr.: 51-of-117 (43.6 percent), 1,787 yards (15.3 per attempt), 16 touchdowns, seven interceptions
- Milroe: 35-of-67 (52.2 percent), 1,267 yards (18.9 per attempt), 16 touchdowns, one interception
This two-play snapshot illustrates the similarities and what will continue in 2024 — start with play action and then find the one-on-one matchup in the deep middle of the field. Under the tutelage of DeBoer and Grubb, Milroe’s passing should continue to progress, and this part of the pass offense will be a staple this fall.
One area that should increase is short-yardage passing (0-5 yards). Penix more-than-doubled Milroe’s number of attempts from 0-5 yards (266 to 119). One part of the field in particular where it’s prioritized under DeBoer and Grubb is near the goal line. Penix threw seven touchdown passes within that range while Milroe had only one.
Plays like the one below are mainstays — tease the run, hit a receiver in stride with blockers in position and allow him to make a play.
Even though Penix isn’t the runner that Milroe is, Washington used him in certain situations to get positive gains. This look from the goal line would work well with Milroe and a running back or Milroe and a receiver such as Kendrick Law or Germie Bernard.
The play below went for a 13-yard gain in the Sugar Bowl against Texas. The motion moves the linebacker, which opens up the middle of the field as the interior of the line creates a hole. The interior will be a strength this season, and plays like this should continue.
Examining the rest of the offense
Alabama’s offensive line received a huge boost last week with the addition of center Parker Brailsford. The highest-graded returning center in college football according to Pro Football Focus gave up only one sack in 2023 and was a key part of Washington winning the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s best offensive line.
It’s unknown if Brailsford will remain at his listed weight of 272 pounds, but this play illustrates what he can do in space as a blocker. Two other things of note: This play is under center, which is something Washington did regularly last season, and it’s another example of how much of a priority perimeter blocking is in this offense.
While the interior of Alabama’s offensive line — with Brailsford, Booker and Jaeden Roberts is elite — tackle is a question mark with zero players with a career start (though Elijah Pritchett gained some experience last season). That will be significant to watch because 57 percent of Washington’s rushing attempts were to the exterior of the offensive line. Alabama also used a good amount of off-tackle run plays behind JC Latham.
If Alabama can get some consistent play out of the tackle spots — paired with solid blocking from the tight ends (led by Robbie Ouzts) — perimeter rushes like the one below will be a main feature. Miller and Haynes’ explosiveness will do well in this system that is designed to get them out into space. Washington’s offense was mostly known for its passing, but running back Dillon Johnson averaged 5.1 yards per carry and rushed for 1,195 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Another early question about the 2024 offense is personnel groupings. Alabama and Washington each had two tight ends among their top five receivers in 2023 but put them on the field in different ways. Alabama featured 12 personnel (two tight end sets) on 38.5 percent of its plays while Washington only used that formation 17 percent of the time. The Huskies featured a trio of soon-to-be 2024 NFL Draft picks: Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk. As a result, DeBoer and Grubb utilized 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end) on 78.9 percent of snaps versus 55.2 percent for Alabama.
Alabama lost several receivers to the draft and transfer portal as well as top tight end Amari Niblack. The receiving corps has some intriguing pieces but doesn’t have a definitive No. 1 right now, and the tight end group is formidable but lost its best, most versatile pass catcher. DeBoer and Grubb like to utilize the tight end in various ways — from inline to the perimeter as a pass catcher. The most Niblack-like player who could fill a role is true freshman Caleb Odom (6-5, 215), but the top two tight ends are returning veterans Ouzts and CJ Dippre.
Below is an example of a play that would better suit their strengths. One particular look that helped Alabama last season was max protection with the tight end. DeBoer and Grubb did the same but allowed for the tight end to turn up the field as a check-down option. This play is a true tight end middle screen with the interior leading the way (another creative play design), but the tight end could also leak out on a regular pass play.
At receiver, Alabama added Bernard from Washington in the transfer portal, and his knowledge and production (43 catches, 419 yards, two touchdowns) in the system provides a boost to the position. Bernard can best be described as “Washington’s Kendrick Law.” Alabama could add more receivers from the spring portal window, and five-star Ryan Williams could still re-commit, but Bernard is expected to see a big role.
Here’s Bernard (6-1, 203) as a pass catcher. His physical running style with a burst upfield makes for an easy comparison to the 5-11, 201-pound Law.
Bernard lined up everywhere for Washington: slot receiver, outside receiver and running back, and he even completed one pass for 14 yards. Here’s Bernard in the backfield with Johnson, and he turns into a strong lead blocker and paves the way for an explosive run play. This could also be a formation that features Bernard and Law together in the backfield.
With DeBoer and Grubb, the more you can do on the field, the better. Players with unique skill sets will be moved around, and the play below serves as an example. Odunze, at 6-3 and 215 pounds, lines up at running back and is used as a decoy in what ends up being a receiver end-around to Polk.
The biggest difference between Washington’s receiving corps and Alabama’s, outside of the star power, is size. Odunze is 6-3 and Polk is 6-2 and north of 200 pounds. McMillian is 6-1 but was close to 200 pounds. DeBoer and Grubb created a lot of one-on-one matchups for those receivers to win contested battles against defensive backs, which they did pretty often. Who that person is for Alabama in 2024 is unknown, but one player to watch is sophomore Jalen Hale (6-1, 189), who had the memorable contested catch against Ole Miss. Or perhaps that player will come via the spring portal window.
Filling that need and finding players to complement the wideouts already on the roster — Kobe Prentice, Bernard and Law — will be key. Speedster Emmanuel Henderson, who has good size at 6-1, 185, is another player who is potentially dangerous in space.
Christopher Kamrani contributed to the reporting in this article.
(Photo of Jalen Milroe: Butch Dill / USA Today)