Tide have aerial options

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If the ends always justified the means, coach Nick Saban would never be labeled a conservative on offense. His offenses would never be called vanilla, predictable or cautious.

If the results were all that counted, the accusations wouldn't matter. The Crimson Tide's BCS national championship trophies would be enough.

But they're not, not even to the coach himself. He isn't satisfied with what he calls a lack of explosive plays at Alabama.

He wants a return to his days at LSU, where his offenses featured more playmakers. Rohan Davey threw for more than 3,300 yards in 2001. No quarterback has broken the 3,000-yard mark in Alabama's history. Wide receiver Josh Reed had two 1,000-yard seasons in Baton Rouge. Michael Clayton broke the 1,000-yard mark in 2003 before being taken in the first round of the NFL draft.

Even when Saban was at Michigan State, he had big-play threats at wide receiver. Plaxico Burress, Muhsin Muhammad and Derrick Mason all played under Saban in East Lansing.

At Alabama, Saban is looking for those types of threats again.

"Making people defend the horizontal and vertical depth of the field by attacking the middle of the field and making people defend it," Saban explained. "Spreading people out, putting good skill players in space with the ball."

The spread? Well, not exactly. Alabama will never be confused with the Oklahoma States of the world. It's not in Saban's genes to give the quarterback that much control.

Said Saban, "There are more things that can go wrong when you throw the ball, but there's also more things that can go right.

"I don't really care how we make them, but the better balance that we have on our team … will help us create explosive plays."

Last season, Alabama had just 13 plays of 40 or more yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Over the past three years, the Crimson Tide have averaged fewer than 16 of those plays a season.

But that's only one way to frame the argument.

Alabama has actually improved each of the past three seasons in getting plays of 20 or more yards, with last year being the high-water mark of 71 such plays.

Sure, they aren't the eye-popping gains you'll see in other pass-happy conferences. Creativity might be lacking, but the offense is effective.

Over the past three years, Alabama has averaged more points per game (34.15) than LSU or USC. No one's calling Les Miles' or Lane Kiffin's offenses bland.

Maybe that's because Alabama, more so than other schools, plays to its strengths. Many of the Crimson Tide's biggest plays came on the ground last year. When you've had a pair of Heisman Trophy finalists at tailback for the last three seasons, it's wise to hand the ball off.

Some call it conservative to run the ball. Others call it balanced. To senior offensive lineman Barrett Jones, it's just a matter of how you look at it. Said Jones, "Maybe balance is conservative, kind of like 50 is the new 40.

"It really just comes down to how you define conservative," he said. "We scored 35 points a game last year. That's not that conservative numberswise. Now are we balanced? Yes. And I think that's how we feel like we have the most effectiveness."

Said Saban: "You have to do on offense what you have the players to do."

Entering his sixth season in Tuscaloosa, Saban believes he has the talent on campus to change the complexion of the offense. AJ McCarron returns at quarterback after throwing 16 touchdowns last season, the offensive line could be one of the best in the country and the receiving corps has the potential to be the best all-around unit since Saban arrived in 2007.

"It's more spread out than it's ever been here," McCarron said. "We have a really good group of receivers. All the guys can run. All the guys can make plays. I'm definitely excited to get out there and see what we've got Sept. 1."

Junior wideout Kevin Norwood has made strides this offseason, as have DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell. Christion Jones, a sophomore who will also return kicks, brings speed in the slot, along with true freshman Cyrus Jones, the No. 4 athlete in the ESPN 150 in 2012.

Another true freshman, Amari Cooper, has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff. The 6-foot-1 receiver is being mentioned as a potential starter. Not since Julio Jones has Saban spoken so highly of a true freshman at any position. The former All-American was the team's leading receiver in his rookie season, catching 58 passes for 924 yards and four touchdowns.

The Alabama staff isn't saying Cooper is the next Julio Jones, or the next anyone for that matter. The same can be said for the offense. Saban knows what he wants -- more big plays -- but how he gets them isn't important. As long as the results are there, he'll be pleased.

"We want to do whatever we need to do to be effective and score points on offense," Saban said. "Making explosive plays and not turning it over are two of the most important things."

That, and winning. You can argue whether Saban's offense is pretty, but you can't quibble with the results.