Nick Saban shocked the football world when he announced his disdain for the no-huddle offense, citing the huge advantage it gives and the added injury risk it creates for players. After a month of backlash, multiple interpretations of his comments, and speculation of whether the Crimson Tide could handle the no-huddle offense, Saban and his No. 1 ranked defense finally have a chance to put all that talk to rest as they take on Texas A&M’s high-powered no-huddle offense this weekend.
Junior linebacker Adrian Hubbard isn’t worried about having to face a no-huddle offense.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Hubbard said. “To an outsider, [stopping the no-huddle offense] would seem difficult, but our offense runs no-huddle sometimes so we get a glimpse of that every day in practice.”
Stopping the Aggies’ up-tempo attack, however, is a lot easier said than done.
So far the Aggies have been nearly unstoppable, averaging 44.7 points and 559.6 yards per game – fourth and fifth ranked in the nation, respectively, and both marks are top in the SEC.
“They do what they do well,” said senior defensive lineman Damion Square. “They want to get up on the ball, and they want to run plays fast and put a lot of points on the scoreboard and as a defense, we’re trying to do the exact opposite. So we gotta come in prepared and prepare the best way we can prepare and go out there and execute what coach draws up on the game-plan.”
And leading the way for the Aggies is a guy affectionately referred to by fans as “Johnny Football,” a duel-threat quarterback who has more than excelled in new head coach Kevin Sumlin’s Air Raid offense. So far Johnny Manziel has led the Aggies to an unexpected 7-2 start and has risen on many end-of-the-year award watch lists, including generating some Heisman buzz. He already has 3,449 total yards – 2,527 passing and 922 rushing – which is on pace to Cam Newton’s record for total yards, despite playing one fewer game. Manziel has received high praise from Saban, compared to former Heisman trophy winner Doug Flutie. And craziest of all, he is only a redshirt freshman.
So the million-dollar question becomes, how do you stop Johnny Football?
“You just have to practice against scrambling,” Saban said. “You have to practice scramble rules, matching patterns, trying to contain the guy in the pocket and push the pocket because he doesn’t just run around you – he’ll step up.”
What makes Manziel’s play making ability so dangerous is the pressure it puts on defense’s defensive backs, as they have to know when to pursue or when to stay in their defensive zone or assignment. And Manziel’s particular skill set makes him tough to prepare for and be emulated in practice.
“If we had somebody who could play that part, we’d play them,” Saban said. “Blake Sims will probably try and do it some, at least the running and scrambling part.”
Backup quarterback Sims has been effective so far this season at emulating opposing scrambling quarterbacks, and with the success the team has had in the past against duel-threat quarterbacks, the Tide is confident the team will be prepared for Manziel this weekend.
“Blake provided us a good look when we played Michigan, and Denard was the quarterback,” Hubbard said. “Everyone always asks what’s the difference between Denard and Johnny, so our scout team gives us a good look every week and I give a lot of credit to them.”
But not only does Manziel’s scrambling ability make the Aggie’s offense tough to stop, he also has arguably the best offensive tackle tandem in the country, with juniors Luke Joeckel and Jack Matthews setting the edge for him. Both players are projected to be drafted in the first two rounds, with Joeckel being considered as the best offensive tackle in the draft. And along with Manziel, the Aggies also have a trio of running backs in Ben Malena, Christine Michael and Trey Williams who can be dangerous with the ball in their hands. To counter this, Saban said it will be important for the Tide to rely on its athleticism on defense.
“We have to put athletic people on the field,” Saban said. “This is not a time to have a bunch of guys out there that can play two-gap on the nose and can’t move. People have to be athletic and they have to be able to move, playing against this team.”
Square believes that not letting Manziel or any of his receivers run loose and keeping the defense fresh will be the crucial to the defense’s success this weekend.
“Have to be a sure tackle,” Square said. “Can’t let a 2-yard gain turn into a 35-yard gain. You gotta get a guy on the ground, you gotta try and get as many three-and-outs as possible, and the offense gotta get on the field and control the tempo of the game.”
Strong, open field tackling has been a staple for Kirby Smart’s defenses over the years, and it’s something in which the Tide defenders have taken great pride. So the team wasn’t very happy with their tackling against LSU, as the Tigers on multiple occasions had players break loose for long gains. Junior linebacker C.J. Mosely, one of the Tide’s surest tacklers and arguably the team’s best defensive player so far this season, said it will be important for the Tide to get back to the fundamentals of tackling they learn in practice and getting every man to the ball.
“Coach always talks about when we have practice and we miss tackles in the open field, just not stopping your feet,” Mosely said. “Just knowing that the 10 men next you are going to be running after the ball too, so not stopping your feet and taking the momentum, and just try to make the play, but it’s all about just running to the football.”
If the Tide can stop Manziel and the Aggies’s no-huddle offense and get a win, it will guarantee the Tide a spot in the SEC Championship game and get the team one step closer to reaching the National Championship game. And that’s where they could potentially face the best no-huddle offense in Oregon, which many believe the Tide will have trouble stopping.
This weekend Saban finally has the chance he wanted to put an end to all the talk about the no-huddle offense. Now the Tide just has to stop it.