Two years ago, Lane Kiffin entered his first spring practice as the offensive coordinator at Alabama as college football’s biggest mystery.
He was an outcast after not living up to expectations at his dream job as the head coach of the USC Trojans.
He was the new fling in college football’s version of the odd couple after agreeing to take over the offense under head coach Nick Saban—the most successful college coach in a generation.
Two seasons, two SEC titles and one national championship later, Kiffin is on the brink of becoming the next big thing on the head coaching circuit for the second time this decade.
He has to get through the 2016 season first, though.
When Alabama opens spring practice in March, it will be the beginning of the most important season of Kiffin’s Alabama career.
It will define who he is as an offensive mind, dictate which jobs are available to him and will determine just how high his stock has soared since being fired on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport following USC’s loss at Arizona State in September 2013.
The reason is simple—despite the benefit of the doubt that Alabama has earned through its ability to replace stars with more stars, the Crimson Tide offense has even more questions this year than Kiffin has ever had to answer during his previous two springs with the program.
Two years ago, Kiffin came to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and inherited a quarterback battle that, like this year, included incredibly unproven players. Those quarterbacks, though, were senior Blake Sims and junior Jake Coker, who was a graduate transfer from defending national champion Florida State.
While Sims wasn’t the most talented quarterback in the world, he was a veteran leader who already had the respect of his teammates on offense before Kiffin even got there and had enough of a grasp of Saban’s overall philosophy to help his teammates and Kiffin ease into the Kiffin era. Most importantly, he was the perfect quarterback to greet Kiffin because of his desire to be a better player and a better man.
“I also want to say thank you to Coach Kiffin for everything he has done for me,” Sims wrote on Bleacher Report (via Marc Torrence) in May 2015. “He taught me how to be a quarterback and had my back when I was down and out. He was always there for me and gave me great advice. I knew I could go talk to him about anything, no matter what the situation was.”
Coker wasn’t ready in 2014, but he was in 2015.
“I think with Jake, it was really just playing,” Kiffin said prior to the Cotton Bowl, according to quotes released by the College Football Playoff. “Neither of these guys had played really at all besides some backup, late-in-the-game duty.
“So you’re a freshman until you play. And even though Jake is a senior, he hadn’t really played. So I think you see him make mistakes early like anybody would, just like a rookie would in the NFL, and then learned from those and got better.”
During each of those two seasons, though, the quarterbacks had plenty of help.
T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry were lining up behind Sims in 2014, with Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper outside to help him ease into the role. Henry was back in 2015 for Coker and ran all the way to New York to win the Heisman Trophy and set a single-season SEC record with 2,219 yards on the ground.
“Very different quarterback from Blake [Sims] to Jake [Coker],” Kiffin said prior to the Cotton Bowl. “Having Amari Cooper catching 125 passes. And then a year later going to games where we’re running the ball 80 percent of the time in the game. We’re giving to it to Derrick, 46, 44 times.”
This year, it’s essentially wide receiver Calvin Ridley, tight end O.J. Howard (who’s really only had one good game) and a bunch of question marks to help out the eventual winner of the quarterback battle, who will be even more of an unknown than either Sims or Coker.
That’s not to say that the quarterback doesn’t have upside. Cooper Bateman got one start last season, and former 5-star prospect Blake Barnett has all the tools to be a star in Kiffin’s offense.
Running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris have combined for 261 yards and two touchdowns. But Howard’s three years of anonymity outside of the College Football Playoff National Championship still should be concerning, and the absence of center Ryan Kelly—who was incredible at diagnosing pressure and getting his fellow offensive linemen in the right protection—will test Kiffin unlike ever before in Tuscaloosa.
Kiffin’s offense set an Alabama record for total offense in 2014 with 484.5 yards per game and followed it up with a national title with Coker at quarterback—who, no offense to the signal-caller himself, isn’t being confused with Tom Brady anytime soon.
Despite that, Kiffin didn’t get a ton of love from top-tier jobs that were open following the 2015 season.
If the third time’s a charm for Kiffin, it should be time for athletic directors to set aside his time at USC—which was under massive scholarship restrictions during his four years there from the Reggie Bush scandal—and recognize Kiffin for what he truly is: one of the best offensive minds in college football.
Would he come with some question marks? Sure.
The stench from how he left Tennessee will never go away (especially in SEC circles), even though it’s hard to blame the guy for taking his dream job when the opportunity presented itself.
His history of being outspoken in the media might scare some athletics directors. But in this day and age of head coaches doubling as the most visible marketing arm for their programs, Kiffin will be well worth the risk if he proves his offensive mettle with this Alabama team that’s loaded with questions.
Kiffin is stepping into the biggest offseason of his career, and it will determine if he’s going to get a chance to redeem himself as a head coach of a major college football program or is destined to be a coordinator.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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