Ole Miss preparing for same ‘run-it-down-your-mouth’ Alabama offense under new coordinator Brian Daboll

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Ole Miss defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff sees the same young yet poised quarterback, the same bruising running backs and the same speedsters out wide when watching tape of Alabama’s offense.

Despite being led by a new coordinator, the Crimson Tide’s offense is operating like it normally does.

The Rebels will see it again when they travel to Bryant-Denny Stadium for this year’s matchup with top-ranked Alabama on Saturday (8 p.m., ESPN). The Crimson Tide are scoring more points than anybody in the Southeastern Conference while only Ole Miss is averaging more yards per game.

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“Haven’t seen much change out of it,” McGriff said. “I think really they may have gotten a little faster.”

Whereas most of the Rebels’ production comes from the nation’s fourth-ranked passing offense, Alabama’s more balanced attack starts as it normally does with a power run game under first-year coordinator Brian Daboll, Alabama’s third play-caller in less than a year. Daboll was hired away from the New England Patriots’ staff in February to replace Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, who stepped in after Kiffin took the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic and called plays in the Crimson Tide’s national championship game loss before bolting to become the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons.

Damien Harris (309 yards, 6 TDs) and Bo Scarbrough (221 yards, 3 TDs) are back leading the SEC’s top rushing attack. Alabama (4-0, 1-0 SEC) had its most prolific day on the ground in Nick Saban’s 11-year tenure last Saturday, racking up 496 yards on the ground in its 59-0 pasting of Vanderbilt.

“They’re still a run-it-down-your-mouth type of team,” linebacker DeMarquis Gates said. “We know that’s what we’re going to get. We’ve just got to come back at them.”

Interim coach Matt Luke said the Rebels’ best chance at disrupting Alabama’s rhythm is to force the Crimson Tide to put the ball in the air, something they haven’t had to do a whole lot with the running game’s success. Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts has only attempted 70 passes through four games but has completed 45 of them for 550 yards and four touchdowns.

He’s got his favorite target back in junior wideout Calvin Ridley, who’s caught nearly three times as many passes as anybody else on Alabama’s roster. The speedster has 262 receiving yards and two scores, but McGriff said the Rebels will have to be conscious of everybody in the passing game, including Harris and Scarbrough, who have combined for 12 receptions out of the backfield.

“They’re going to run the ball and then take a shot at you vertically to make sure you’re being honest on the back end,” McGriff said. “They’re going to let their playmakers play.”

That includes Hurts, who’s proven to be as much of a threat with his legs as the Crimson Tide’s top rusher with 360 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Hurts broke contain many times against Ole Miss last season to run for a game-high 146 yards in the Crimson Tide’s 48-43 win in Oxford, and McGriff said Hurts’ maturity beyond his years as a passer has made him even more difficult to defend on the ground.

“He’s not just a guy that’s going to pull the ball down and run,” McGriff said. “He’ll pull the ball down and keep his eyes down the field and he’ll hit a receiver on the run.”

Said Luke, “He doesn’t get rattled. It almost looks effortless, making guys miss. Just how poised he is is very impressive for a guy that young.”

It will be the biggest challenge so far for an Ole Miss defense that’s 95th nationally against the run. There’s no secret about what Ole Miss needs to do to give itself a chance against an Alabama offense that won’t surprise the Rebels with what’s coming.

“I don’t think scheme is going to save you in this game,” McGriff said. “You’re going to have to win some one-on-one battles up front. We’ve got to tear off our blocks and go make plays.”