TUSCALOOSA _ Although they're not official statistics, University of Alabama coach Nick Saban pays very close attention and frequently stresses the numbers during his press conferences.
Take last year's season opener, for example, when the Crimson Tide beat Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome, 34-24. The first thing he referred to when addressing reporters had nothing to do with red-zone play, third-down conversions or turnovers, but something he has charted.
"I think making (12) explosive plays offensively was a real key," he said at the time.
It's an area Saban's targeted for improvement and he liked what he saw during last week's first spring scrimmage.
"We were a lot better in that regard," Saban said. "I don't know how many we had, but we had some. We kept it pretty simple. I think that's something that we've done a very good job of every day in practice. More multiples in what we're doing and more ways to get balls to the perimeter people and I think it's showing in the big plays that we're making and it showed (Friday).
"It's something that we have to continue to focus on."
Saban has said in the past that he considers a big play to be a run of 16 yards or more or a pass of 21 yards or more, and an explosive play a run of 13 yards or more or a pass of 17 yards or more.
Among the team goals for each game are to have at least seven big plays or nine explosive plays, which can be a lot harder than it sounds. Those 12 against the Hokies were more than Alabama had against any opponent in 2008.
Eyeballing the play-by-play of every game the past two seasons, here are the number of big plays and explosive plays broken down into runs and passes. The explosive plays are in parenthesis.
Team: Run; Pass
Clemson: 2(3); 2(2)
Tulane: 1(2); 0(0)
Western Kentucky: 3(5); 5(5)
Arkansas: 5(6); 2(2)
Georgia: 0(1); 4(4)
Kentucky: 3(3); 3(3)
Ole Miss: 1(3); 5(5)
Tennessee: 1(3); 1(2)
Arkansas State: 3(4); 2(3)
LSU: 2(3); 4(6)
Mississippi State: 1(1); 2(2)
Auburn: 3(4); 3(4)
Florida: 1(1); 2(4)
Utah: 1(1); 1(2)
Total: 27(40); 36(44)
Virginia Tech: 7(8); 2(4)
Florida International: 4(5); 3(5)
North Texas: 4(6); 3(7)
Arkansas: 1(2); 3(4)
Kentucky: 2(6); 3(3)
Ole Miss: 3(4); 0(0)
South Carolina: 5(9); 1(15
Tennessee: 1(2); 0(1)
LSU: 3(3); 3(4)
Mississippi State: 2(4); 3(3)
Chattanooga: 3(4); 1(2)
Auburn: 0(0); 1(3)
Florida: 2(3); 4(6)
Texas: 4(4); 1(1)
Total: 41(60); 28(44)
Two things become obvious:
1) The fewer big and explosive plays opponents yielded the better their chances of winning;
2) Alabama broke a lot more big runs last season.
During the game that made Mark Ingram the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy, South Carolina, he had six big plays and eight explosive plays, only one of which was a reception. Of course, he went on to win and also set the Alabama single-season rushing record of 1,658.
Interestingly, while the Tide nearly had the same number of explosive pass plays as 2008, there was a significant drop-off in big pass plays (from 36 down to 28). While it may in part have been due to Alabama relying more on the run after it got the lead and keeping things a little closer to the vest due to replacing a three-year starting quarterback, it clearly reflects why there's so much optimism regarding this season's offense.
Just about everyone else is back, including a more confident, comfortable and still undefeated Greg McElroy taking snaps. This may be his first time returning as a starter since eighth grade, but it's also the first time under Saban that Alabama doesn't have either a new offensive coordinator or starting quarterback.
Meanwhile, wide receiver Julio Jones has been the talk of spring practice and had eight receptions for 105 yards in the scrimmage.
After catching 58 passes for 924 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman, Jones had offseason surgeries to fix his wrist, shoulder and a sports hernia. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks stepped up, but after taking a helmet to the knee Jones finished with 43 receptions for 596 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore.
"I think it's safe to say that he's a different player," McElroy said. "He stepped it up tremendously. He's even probably surpassed what he did as a freshman. He knows how to work, he understands the system, he plays with a savvy, which is encouraging. He knows how to shuck defenders and he's really doing a good job with the ball in his hands after the catch.
"He's obviously a dominant player. He has been since he's been on campus, and he's really stepped it up big-time in the leadership aspect. He just goes out there and works as hard as everyone else and you have to appreciate that out of a wide receiver. Even if he's not involved in the read he's out there busting his tail trying to get everyone else to. He's coaching up the other guys and taking an interest in their improving as well."