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January 4, 2010

McElwain the right man to run Tide offense

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Pat Hill's phone rang. It was Alabama coach Nick Saban, a good friend and former colleague on the 1991 Cleveland Browns coaching staff. Saban was looking for an offensive coordinator. And he had his eye on Hill's guy at Fresno State: Jim McElwain.

"I told Nick to not even hesitate," Hill said. "I told him that Jimmy was the perfect guy for the job."

That's all Saban needed to hear. McElwain came aboard in Tuscaloosa prior to the 2008 season. And the Crimson Tide offense has been highly effective ever since.

In two seasons under Hill (2006-07), McElwain developed an astute understanding of offensive line play that most coordinators don't possess. Hill also made sure McElwain learned all about pass protections and blocking schemes, not just pass patterns and running plays.

"Jimmy really embraced it," Hill said. "Plus, he has an electric personality. He was one of the best I had. And I have had some good coordinators, including Jeff Tedford, Andy Ludwig, Doug Nussmeier and Frank Cignetti."

Some felt McElwain was a surprising hire as offensive coordinator. Others reported to have been in the mix for the job were Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, then Georgia Southern coach Chris Hatcher, Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach Tom Clements and then Michigan quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler.

"I feel fortunate to be here," McElwain said. "Working with Nick has expanded my knowledge."

In the BCS title game, McElwain will face off against the guy he replaced as Alabama offensive coordinator: Major Applewhite, who is the Texas assistant head coach/running backs.

"You look at Nick's teams," Hill said. "They always are about being tough, playing strong defense, running the ball and controlling field position. Jimmy understands all of that.

"Our teams at Fresno are a lot like that. We don't have the same talent, but we play a downhill style like Alabama. Between us and Alabama, we had two of the top three running backs in the nation. They had [Mark] Ingram and we had Ryan Mathews [who leads the nation in rushing]."

McElwain is a disciple of sorts of John L. Smith. McElwain coached under Smith at Louisville (2000-02) and Michigan State (2003-05) before working the 2006 season with the Oakland Raiders, developing a mastery of the one-back, spread offense under Smith. McElwain has incorporated some of those sets into the Alabama attack, but the running game remains the backbone of everything the Crimson Tide does. It's all about ball control.

How big of an impact has coordinator Jim McElwain had on the Alabama offense? Below is a look at the numbers the year before he arrived (2007) and the last two seasons with McElwain at the controls.
Year YPG SEC rank NCAA rank
Texas has the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation, yielding just 62.2 yards per game. Foes average a scant 1.9 yards per carry and have scored just five rushing touchdowns. Conversely, an Alabama ground game led by Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram ranks No. 12 in the nation, averaging 215.9 yards per game. The Tide averages 5.1 yards per tote and has run for 27 touchdowns.
While Heisman Trophy running back Mark Ingram will be a focal point of the Texas defense after the sophomore ran for 1,542 yards and 15 touchdowns, the Longhorns also have to keep an eye on Trent Richardson.

The true freshman quietly had a strong debut, rumbling for 642 yards and six scores. He also caught 14 passes for 107 yards. In fact, some insiders feel Richardson may one day be a better back than Ingram.
"You've got a defense like that and it makes my job pretty easy," McElwain said. "I'll tell you, the great thing about having a guy like Coach Saban is his wealth of knowledge about what the opposing defense is trying to do and how he can help say, hey, these are some things that may give them trouble. I think he does a great job of that. I can't tell you how much ball we've learned since being here, just from being around a guy like Nick."

While Alabama has a reputation for a grind-it-out offense behind Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram, the Tide attack has shown explosion by producing 55 plays of 20 yards or more with 21 of those plays going for touchdowns this season. Credit McElwain and the work he has done in developing quarterback Greg McElroy. Many felt the Tide didn't have a legitimate chance to compete for the SEC title -- let alone the national title -- because of the inexperienced McElroy.

McElroy had a good pedigree, hailing from the same high school (Southlake Carroll in Texas) that also produced Chase Daniel. McElroy lacked experience, but the junior has blossomed this fall under McElwain.

There was a three-game stretch in October (against Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee) when McElroy was struggling in the passing game, particularly in the red zone. He admitted that the game wasn't fun.

"We all kind of sat back and kind of reevaluated what direction we were going a little bit," McElwain said. "And I think in some cases, I mean, it's a credit to Greg how he approached it and did a great job of still managing the situation while going forward with what we needed to do offensively."

McElroy finished as the fourth-most efficient passer in the SEC, completing 61.2 percent of his throws for 2,450 yards with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions. Not bad for a guy who entering this season had thrown just 20 passes.

If Alabama wants to win its first national title since 1992, it will be vital for McElroy to loosen a Texas defense that will commit to stopping the run by hitting some passes down field to the likes of wideouts Julio Jones and Marquis Maze. McElwain knows that. He also has a few other things in mind that he feels will work against this speedy Longhorn defense. But he's not tipping his hand.

"Well, from a coaching standpoint, I think if you make it bigger than it is -- we've got to make sure that we understand the game plan that we're going to go out and play a ballgame against a very good team," McElwain said. "There's a reason they're here."

McElwain is a big reason Alabama is here.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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