The Same Lane Kiffin

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Lane Kiffin’s 2014 redemption tour as offensive coordinator at Alabama was a rousing success. It had to have been, otherwise he wouldn’t have been a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, right?

He wouldn’t have received almost universal praise, including on this very site, courtesy of Trenise Ferriera. Right?

Well…

Alabama heads into the 2015 under the shroud of an on-going quarterback controversy. Head coach Nick Saban has not hinted at any one of four competitors for the job separating himself from the herd, and media covering the Crimson Tide seem to have no clue who the starter will be Sept. 5 against Wisconsin.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Lane Kiffin’s tenure as USC head coach came to an end in part because of his indecision on a quarterback in 2013. Kiffin started his season-on-the-hot-seat playing both Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, hardly the decisive stance a coach in make-or-break situation needed to take. It contributed to his early ouster, too, as the Trojans started conference play 0-2, losing at home to Washington State 10-7

Kessler went on to finish 2013 with 22 touchdowns and six touchdowns, and heads into 2015 a Heisman favorite. Kessler played with more confidence almost from the moment Kiffin was dismissed. That shouldn’t be too surprising, given that the head coach gave Wittek multiple opportunities to take the job.

That’s what Jacob Coker faces as the presumptive favorite. Early into the Tide’s slate, he’ll have David Cornwell breathing down his neck for every mistake — and that’s assuming Coker’s starting.

Alabama’s current situation is apparently so dire that Tuscaloosa is among the rumored destination for Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson. Is the situation so pressing that Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban would prefer take on a one-year plug-in player than give the previous transfer the reins, or play a youngster like David Cornwell or Blake Barnett early?

Nick Saban is renowned for his diligence, so perhaps a second straight year of Alabama entering the summer without a clear No. 1 quarterback is simply the coaching staff biding its time and giving every player an opportunity to prove his worthiness. After all, the buck stops with Saban as head coach.

But, as known for diligence as Saban may be, Kiffin is the opposite. Moreover, this indecision at quarterback is a newer phenomenon that followed the offensive coordinator from USC to Alabama.

This marks three straight years in which Lane Kiffin had a quarterback controversy last beyond spring football. Before that, both Tennessee’s Jonathan Crompton and USC’s Matt Barkley were starters he inherited from the previous regimes.

Once? Sure, that happens with a lot of coaches and programs. Twice? Rich Rodriguez didn’t reveal Anu Solomon as his starter until a week before Arizona’s 2014 opener, and B.J. Denker wasn’t named the starter until he came out on the field for the Wildcats’ first snap vs. Northern Arizona in 2013. Both had productive seasons.

Three seasons in a row? That’s a trend, and not particularly confidence-inspiring.

In fairness to Kiffin, last year’s quarterback controversy was somewhat contrived by media, eager to see Florida State transfer Jacob Coker became the next great grad transfer in the vein of Russell Wilson. Blake Sims’ performance in Lane Kiffin’s offense was just fine, and he never wilted under the pressure of fans and pundits both wanting to see more of his back-up, nor under the pass-heavy playbook Kiffin installed.

But it’s because Kiffin’s scheme relies on passing more than previous Alabama offensive coordinators under Saban that this lingering quarterback controversy should be unsettling for Tide faithful. Previously at Alabama, a quarterback just had to be an effective game manager, snapping into the system and ensuring the multitude of running backs had an effective enough passing attack working with them to keep defenses honest.

Neither Greg McElroy nor A.J. McCarron were the kind of quarterback who would go to a Big 12 or Pac-12 school, pass 400 times and score 40 touchdowns. However, they didn’t need to be.

That’s not true with Lane Kiffin. His offense, while statistically balanced, thrives on a heavy dose of the pass, evident in the jump from 365 pass attempts in 2013, to 450 in 2014. Kiffin’s pass attack also operates primarily through a single receiver, another trend that he brought to Alabama from USC.

Last season, it elevated Amari Cooper to Heisman Trophy finalist. A case could be made that Marqise Lee deserved similar recognition in 2012, smashing Pac-12 records.

Leaning primarily on a single target comes at the expense of others in the system, however. Robert Woods, USC’s cornerstone receiver in 2011, saw his production dipped considerably commiserate with Lee’s rise to stardom. Woods caught 35 fewer passes for 446 fewer yards and four less touchdowns, and his comments to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times suggest the tumble was not lost on Woods:

“[I]f the coaches wanted to keep me another year they would have probably got me the ball, so that had nothing to do with play calling or anything. It was just, that’s just how it went this whole year. So that had nothing to do with it, but I just feel like the coaches prepared me.”

For Alabama, Christion Jones’ production under Lane Kiffin dipped from the season prior, with Doug Nussmeier calling the offense. It was hardly the drop-off Woods experienced, but at almost half the number of catches, still noticeable.

Perhaps more indicative of Lane Kiffin’s philosophy was that promising tight end O.J. Howard failed to take off as projected. Howard’s production in 2014 was almost a carbon-copy of his 2013 numbers, but he didn’t have a single touchdown.

The Crimson Tide will always favor the run so long as Saban is the head coach, and that didn’t change under Lane Kiffin. Alabama actually rushed more in 2014 than in 2013, with Kiffin making full use of the loaded backfield. He also did as at the expense of feeding Alabama’s most talented back.

Derrick Henry’s 172 carries in 14 games seem awfully paltry. It’s not as egregious as Buck Allen being buried on USC’s running back depth chart, but Henry should be putting up the kind of numbers Trent Richardson generated in his time at Alabama.

One can’t argue Lane Kiffin was far more successful operating through the filter of a head coach — and the most authoritative head coach in the game, at that. But go beyond the production Alabama is going to have as a result of its recruiting prowess, and it sure looks like Lane Kiffin is doing things with the Alabama offense much the same way he did with USC’s.