Nick Saban couldn't have picked many places further away than Fresno State to find his new offensive coordinator. Jim McElwain has never spent even a day on the circuit of assistant coaches that migrate from one Southeastern Conference school to another, so when the Alabama football coach announced the addition of McElwain, there was no familiarity with the UA fan base.
Roughly six months later, there still isn't much.
Oh, McElwain's track record with quarterbacks is out there, and his success at Fresno State last year is well-documented. But what does he put on the field on Saturdays? What will his Tuscaloosa thumbprint look like?
Believe it or not, there's a firefighter in Billings, Montana with a better perspective than almost anyone.
Rob Compson was the clay for one of McElwain's first real quarterback sculptures. A decade ago, the former Montana State signal caller set fire to defenses all over the Big Sky Conference. Now, he's putting fires out. But 10 years later, his recollection of working with McElwain is still clear.
"I went from scout team to starting because of some injuries, and that week before my first start, coach Mac spent more time with me than he did with his family," Compson said.
Over the next three seasons, Compson went on to break every school passing record with 6,828 yards and 54 touchdown passes. So what can UA fans expect?
"We were a two-back team than ran the ball 60-40 when I first got there, and by the time I left we were single back and passing the ball 70-30," Compson said. "He likes backs that can do everything, because that's what you need to run single-back and get three or four receivers out there. He likes to move the pocket - he used to kid me because I couldn't run very well, but he finds ways to keep the defense on its toes."
Fresno State coach Pat Hill has worked with some high-profile offensive minds. He counts Cal coach Jeff Tedford and Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin in that group, and thinks as highly of McElwain as any of them.
"What Jim is so good at is figuring out the different things guys can do, and then finding the matchups to get them in the best position to make plays," said Hill. "Can your tight end play off the line or flex out, are your backs good enough receivers to run option routes, just knowing his personnel. I think Jim did his best job when we had injuries and our top players were out of the lineup. That's the mark of a truly great coordinator."
Both Compson and Fresno State quarterback Tom Brandstater said McElwain's offenses stressed a short, controlled passing game designed to locate the vulnerabilities in a given defense. At times on the goal line last year, according to Brandstater, McElwain would send in his goal line unit to force the defense to sub in its goal line personnel, then break the huddle to an empty formation with five receivers, creating mismatches everywhere.
"He used to say, 'Take what the defense gives you, and eventually they'll give you the game," said Brandstater.
Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson has worked with McElwain for just 15 spring practices, including three scrimmages, but alluded to the short passing philosophy in April.
"'We do some stuff that allows us to make some easier completions," Wilson said. "We may not take as many shots downfield, but once you get on a roll in this offense, you can really get going."
Brandstater said McElwain looks at the game like a chess match, always thinking three plays ahead of the action. He changed little if anything about Brandstater's delivery and mechanics, but insisted he read certain plays a certain way, even if the play might begin to break down. That kept him in the pocket more, and freelancing less, according to Brandstater. As for gadget plays, McElwain has his share - especially when he identifies something in a defense that can be exploited. In fact, he let the players come up with their own names for trick plays to help keep things fun.
"We had a play called 'Old Brown Shoe' where we would go through a series of shifts and the tackle would split out like a receiver," Brandstater said. "And even though he wasn't even eligible, somebody on the defense would always go out and cover him anyway, and it would give us a mismatch somewhere else."
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