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What Syracuse’s offense can (realistically) borrow from Alabama

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Sark’s scheme had some familiar admirers on Monday night

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NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Ohio State vs Alabama Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you watched Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship game or not, the final score was probably informative. The Alabama Crimson Tide, a team previously known primarily for its defensive prowess, had completed its metamorphosis into the nation’s preeminent offensive powerhouse.

With Steve Sarkisian (now the new Texas head coach) at the helm of the offense for one final game, the Tide looked virtually unstoppable in a 52-24 shellacking of Ohio State. Quarterback Mac Jones had 464 passing yards and five scores. Heisman winner Devonta Smith caught 12 passes for 215 yards. The Alabama running game didn’t even have to do much, yet still wound up with 157 yards.

How ‘Bama picked Ohio State apart was jarring, and the offense’s proficiency gained some admirers throughout the night, too — including one Syracuse Orange quarterback, Tommy DeVito.

Now, there’s of course the obvious joke that any Syracuse player would be stunned by Alabama play-calling given the disastrous state of the Orange offense these past two years with Mike Lynch and then Sterlin Gilbert at the helm. But aside from that, there are some aspects of the Tide’s offense that Syracuse might want to try and emulate... and actually be able to feasibly, despite a lack of four- and five-star talent on the field.

So this isn’t an exhaustive list, and we did try to keep things confined to what’s repeatable for a program like SU. But here are a few concepts that it could behoove the Orange to borrow:

Utilize more screens

Of Jones’s 311 completions on the year, 206 were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and 103 (!!!) were behind the line, according to Pro Football Focus. Now, I’ll grant you that Jones was also incredibly accurate in this part of the field, hitting over 90% of his throws in that 10 yards or less range — so perhaps that’s not AS sustainable for a program like Syracuse. Still, though, the Tide managed to put four and five wideouts on the field in a number of different ways, and create chaos with screens paired with more complicated (at times) downfield routes.

Even Smith, despite big numbers and a Heisman Trophy win, was utilized plenty close to the line of scrimmage. Of his 117 catches, 71 were within 10 yards of the line and of those, 39 came at or behind the line of scrimmage. This is a game-changing receiver who was utilized close to the line of scrimmage more often than not, and they let his speed make bigger plays out of that.

When DeVito notes how many options were out there for Jones in the scheme, at least part of that comes from screens and the variations Sark was willing to use to keep defenses on their toes. Clearly protection helps too, and DeVito or any Syracuse QB could always use more of that. But screens help combat pressure too... yet SU’s avoided them for much of the last couple years.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

RPOs

Eric Dungey’s biggest strength was arguably not his running ability, but what his running ability did to defenses. How he was able to take off AND take some contact left a defender occupied at all times, and helped open up throws both near the line and downfield. Syracuse leaned into this over time, with more of a run-pass-option offense tailored to Dungey’s strengths, and it worked out pretty well for all parties involved.

We know DeVito can run the ball well (and is, in fact, faster than Dungey) but is either too decisive tucking it or not decisive enough depending on the situation. Perhaps that can change, or we see Garrett Shrader’s mobility plugged in to mark a return to an RPO attack.

Alabama used the RPO threat really well this year, despite Jones not being much of a run threat himself, instead leaning on Najee Harris’s abilities at running back there. This PFF piece talks at length about how Jones picked apart Notre Dame’s defense in the Rose Bowl, getting Irish defenders in the middle of the field to bite just enough on the run to find a seam.

Start spreading teams out again

Even without Alabama-level athletes, this gets to the heart of what’s been missing for Syracuse these past two years. The Tide are constantly running sets with three receivers, a hybrid tight end and a running back. Or four- and five-wide sets that bend and then break defenses over time with a good mix of routes both downfield and underneath. These were hallmarks of the Dino Babers offense before he got to Syracuse and even in the first few years he was on campus — even if to a lesser effect than he’d seen at Eastern Illinois or Bowling Green.

Protection issues have interfered with how many players Syracuse can get out into the open field, but hopefully we see a shift there in 2021. Luke Benson seems like an intriguing hybrid tight end with both size and speed, while we could see someone like Cooper Lutz utilized in an H-back type role when he’s not at running back. If Syracuse can add a big, experienced target to draw defenses into coverage downfield, it could duplicate some of what we saw when Ervin Philips was racking up catches in 2016 and 2017.

Again, we don’t have Alabama-level talent, and could probably use another big receiver to help move Taj Harris into the slot where he’d be a better fit. But Syracuse has emphasized speed at the receiver position, and can use that and a variety of different looks to create openings in opposing defenses.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The above may sound obvious, but in embracing some principles like these as core tenets of Babers’s offensive attack, it’s potentially more of an evolution for him as a coach. When Dino arrived, speed was the differentiator, but his offense worked best with the versatility and on-the-fly decision making of a guy like Dungey. When DeVito took over and the line went to hell, the team lost both its tempo and its X-factor. That’s how we got what was witnessed last year, running a basic offense without much pace to make it effective.

With everyone running tempo to some degree now, that can’t be the special sauce anymore, but it can be part of the final recipe. No matter who’s at quarterback in 2021, SU should be taking the cues it can from an offense like Alabama’s and get back to a scheme that forces defenses to adjust (or fail to adjust) to what they’re doing out there.