How Alabama, Michigan State built running back, quarterback factories
Michigan State is to quarterbacks what Alabama is to running backs. That much we know to be true.
Those identities define the Cotton Bowl foes.
Ever since Mark Dantonio and Nick Saban took over their respective programs, it seems like every year we’re talking about a new MSU quarterback or a new Alabama running back making noise in the NFL.
Let’s take a look back at the players that have been key cogs in their respective position factories:
MSU’s NFL quarterbacks since 2007:
-Drew Stanton (2007)
-Brian Hoyer (2009)
-Kirk Cousins (2011)
-Nick Foles* (2012)
*transferred to Arizona
Alabama’s NFL running backs since 2007:
-Glen Coffee (2009)
-Mark Ingram (2011)
-Trent Richardson (2012)
-Eddie Lacy (2013)
-T.J. Yeldon (2015)
Both Connor Cook and Derrick Henry, who will headline the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve, figure to be early-round selections in the 2016 NFL draft. Both teams will rely heavily on their stars in the College Football Playoff semifinal showdown.
That’s the norm for these two programs. For Alabama, the ground game has consistently been the go-to form of offense in the Saban era. Just look at Derrick Henry’s last two games with a combined 90 carries.
In the Saban era, every Bama offense has been run-first.
Percentage of Alabama run plays per season:
During that stretch, Alabama ran the ball on 58% of its plays from scrimmage. You’ll notice that Saban has run the ball between 56-63% of the time in the last eight years. No wonder it’s a running back factory. In four of the last five years, he’s featured a back that finished the season with 200-plus carries. None of them, however, eclipsed the 300-carry mark like Henry did this year.
But MSU doesn’t operate like that. You would think that with all the NFL arms the Spartans have been cranking out, they would be a gun-slinging team, but they actually have had great balance over the years. In fact, Dantonio favors the run.
Percentage of MSU pass plays per season:
2007: 40% (393 of 973)
2008: 44% (399 of 910)
2009: 50% (423 of 842)
2010: 54% (444 of 817)
2011: 48% (451 of 940)
2012: 49% (465 of 957)
2013: 43% (430 of 999)
2014: 40% (400 of 994)
2015: 43% (401 of 927)
That’s only 45% pass plays during that stretch. Dantonio doesn’t put it all on his quarterback to win the game. It helps when you have guys like Le’Veon Bell and Jeremy Langford to establish balance.
But this is more of a style thing than anything else.
Dantonio doesn’t have the luxury of just taking control with a slew of five-star skill-players behind a bunch of five-star offensive linemen.
Saban believes his best is better than the other team’s best, and he doesn’t care if you know his team is going to run it. More times than not, he’s right.
Take a look at the recruiting outlook of each team’s NFL players at their respective positions:
-Drew Stanton* (4-star)
-Brian Hoyer (3-star)
-Kirk Cousins (3-star)
-Nick Foles (3-star)
-Connor Cook (3-star)
*Was recruited before Dantonio got to MSU
-Glen Coffee** (3-star)
-Mark Ingram (4-star)
-Trent Richardson (5-star)
-Eddie Lacy (4-star)
-T.J. Yeldon (5-star)
-Derrick Henry (5-star)
**Was recruited before Saban got to Alabama
The recruiting difference is obvious. Saban gets the strongest, most talented backs available because he can. Dantonio gets the guys that can make throws to stretch the field and that understand the offense. His quarterbacks pick up blitzes and make confident throws in the pocket. They don’t get sacked and they don’t have a short leash on them to succeed.
Cook, Cousins and Stanton all started at least three years for the Spartans. None of Saban’s tailbacks start more than two years. They’re never in a position where they need a freshman or sophomore to start. Michigan State doesn’t have that luxury.
It’s somewhat amazing that on opening day, there were three MSU quarterbacks starting in the NFL, and Stanton was just a Carson Palmer injury away from making it four.
It’s the same thing for Alabama. Ingram, Lacy and Yeldon were all feature backs to start the NFL season without much debate.
Dantonio and Saban created cultures that other programs only wish they can emulate. Everybody wants to be the next great MSU quarterback. Everybody wants to be the next great Alabama running back.
Both have cemented themselves as two of college football’s top five programs using different styles to get there.
Come New Year’s Eve, they hope that’ll fuel them one more time.