Take a look at every Alabama game during the Nick Saban era to see just how dominant the Crimson Tide has been, and how thoroughly beaten they were on Monday night. (0:58)
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s annual game of musical chairs took place again on Friday morning when a row of empty, leather-bound seats were filled by standouts Quinnen Williams, Jonah Williams and Josh Jacobs as they prepared to announce they would be leaving school early to enter the NFL draft. Right as the trio made their decisions public, Irv Smith Jr. wrote on Twitter that he, too, would be opting to turn pro rather than return for his senior season.
But beyond those chairs containing the departing stars of the Alabama offense and defense, beyond the walls of the Naylor Stone Media Suite and down the hallway behind it, was where the real action was taking place. Because if Nick Saban bothered to open any of the doors to his assistant coaches’ offices that day, he would have seen a lot of empty desks and a lot of unanswered questions staring back at him.
Players leaving early for the NFL is nothing new. In fact, it’s sort of a badge of honor for a program with more than its fair share of the country’s top talent. But the mass exodus of assistant coaches that began almost immediately after Alabama’s loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game was different.
A year earlier, the shakeup on Alabama’s staff was seen as Saban cleaning house of his own accord. This felt more like his assistants fleeing the premises.
Not only had offensive coordinator Mike Locksley left to become the head coach at Maryland, as expected, but offensive line coach Brent Key left for the same position at Georgia Tech, which was at best a lateral move. Then, co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Josh Gattis left to become the OC at Michigan, which is a step up but not exactly a leap, either. And not minutes after the trio of underclassmen wrapped up their news conference, it was announced that Dan Enos, the current quarterbacks coach and Locksley’s presumptive replacement, would be off to Miami to become the offensive coordinator under new coach Manny Diaz.
Even then, amidst all the upheaval before the start of the weekend, there was the sense that it wasn’t over yet. On Sunday, safety Deionte Thompson was a late declaration for the draft, as was linebacker Mack Wilson. There were whispers of more changes coming to the coaching staff, and there were more questions about where longtime quarterback Jalen Hurts would be heading as a graduate transfer, should he choose to take the last train out of Tuscaloosa along with everyone else.
The loss to Clemson was glaring in terms of the flaws it revealed in a program that was previously seen as invincible. But this? This felt more like a sea change. Though no one should be so bold as to declare the Alabama dynasty dead or on life support, no one should ignore the challenges ahead, either.
Saban has weathered many storms before, but this offseason will test him and the seemingly unstoppable machine he has built over the past 12 years. Almost every facet of his program will need retooling if Alabama hopes to avenge its lopsided loss to Clemson.
The good news is that the Tide will continue to be loaded with talent, as always. Defensive lineman Raekwon Davis has NFL potential, but he decided to return to Tuscaloosa. Anfernee Jennings may stay with him. Coupled with returning starters Xavier McKinney, Dylan Moses and Patrick Surtain II, there’s a strong nucleus any team would love to work with.
The secondary, which returned no starters from 2017 and looked utterly lost at times against Clemson, should improve with experience. But another area that needs as much attention but has less optimism surrounding it is outside linebacker and defensive end — specifically the pass-rushers. Although it’s true Jennings coming back and Terrell Lewis‘ return from knee surgery would give Alabama two nice cornerstones, it’s far from a finished product. Whether it’s freshman Eyabi Anoma or another up-and-comer, Saban needs more depth at the position.
On offense, there are fewer glaring personnel issues. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and all of his top four wideouts, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, are coming back, which should make up for the loss of Smith Jr. at tight end. And while Jonah Williams and senior Ross Pierschbacher won’t be easily replaced on the offensive line, there are returning starters such as Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr. to lean on.
Clemson is the new king, but Alabama will be back, along with Georgia, Ohio State and Notre Dame, while a couple of teams from Texas elbow their way into the top 10.
Mark it down for 2019: Trevor Lawrence will win the first of two Heismans, while Mack Brown and Les Miles sit out bowl season in their returns.
And as always, the Tide will reload through recruiting; they welcome in the nation’s No. 1 class, highlighted by 28 ESPN 300 prospects.
But with so few returning offensive assistant coaches, the direction of the offense in general is a serious question.
If you’re looking for a silver lining in the departure of Enos, it’s this: For as well-regarded a play-caller and developer of talent that he is, he has never run the style of offense Locksley did. And fitting a pro-style play-caller with a spread call sheet — as we saw with Brian Daboll a year earlier — can have its issues. Wherever Saban goes next for his offensive coordinator, he would do well to look for someone adept at utilizing multiple receivers and the run-pass option game.
Late Saturday, ESPN’s Dianna Russini and Chris Low reported that Steve Sarkisian would return to Alabama as offensive coordinator after two underwhelming seasons in the pros with the Atlanta Falcons. His relationship with Tagovailoa is strong from the recruiting trail, but his swift exit after coaching — and losing — his one game as the Tide’s OC in 2017 has many fans nervous about next season.
But whomever Saban chose, it wouldn’t be the same. Almost the entire offensive staff will be filled with new faces when spring practice starts, and that’s to say nothing of the speculation surrounding the defense.
The ship isn’t sinking. Alabama won’t be left without a seat when the music stops. But these are turbulent times, and it’s worth paying attention to how Saban handles the months ahead.
Replacing stars such as Quinnen Williams is one thing. Overhauling a coaching staff for the second straight season and recovering from the beatdown the Tide suffered in the national title game is something altogether different.