Alabama, it will not surprise you if you know Nick Saban’s near-sociopathic attention to detail, had been practicing precisely that onside kick every week since August. But it wasn’t until long film study had identified a potential weakness in Clemson’s kick return coverage, and firsthand observation confirmed its existence, that Bama knew when they would run it. It turned out to be in the fourth quarter of a tied National Championship Game, and it was absolutely flawless.
The onside kick, the perfect marriage of conception and execution, felt like it changed all the momentum in the Crimson Tide’s 45-40 championship win. It was ballsy as all hell—the game was tied, and Bama’s offense had been scuffling—but almost from the moment the ball was struck, there was no risk whatsoever. It was like a game of catch.
There wasn’t an orange jersey within 10 feet of redshirt freshman CB Marlon Humphrey—just as Alabama expected. Saban and special teams coach Bobby Williams had studied film of the Tigers, and noticed that Clemson’s return unit was almost always packed very tight. More than that, Clemson’s Jayron Kearse, positioned on that side, more often than not just took off running rather than wait to watch the ball be kicked.
The formation and Thompson’s first move were both so consistent that Saban told kicker Adam Griffith before the game that he’d probably be attempting an onside kick, as long as Clemson showed the same looks in this game. They did.
“They lined up closest to the hash on the sideline so boom, perfect,” Griffith said.
Word spread on the sideline, to the point where OC Lane Kiffin told his players to hide their smiles to avoid giving anything away.
Kearse was caught flat-footed, and couldn’t get back on balance fast enough to run down Humphrey. He shouldn’t feel bad about not being able to keep pace with Humphrey, though; not many people can.
Humphrey, athletically, is the ideal recovery man for an onside kick. He took gold in the 110-meter and 400-meter hurdles at the 2013 World Youth Track and Field Trials. That means he can run fast and jump high. This play was drawn up for him.
Bama had been running the “pop kick”—in which Griffith chips it directly into the air, rather than the unpredictable bouncing onside kick favored by most teams—in practice every week. That sort of kick carries its own risk/reward calculus: it’s easier for a kicker to place than a bouncing ball, but when properly defended it’s more predictable and easier to corral.
In practice, even against a unit that knew it could be coming at any time, Humphrey almost always got there. One potential hiccup: he rarely caught it.
“I usually drop the ball,” Humphrey said. “So I was really nervous.”
He dropped it again in Saturday’s practice, and got an extra review session with his special teams coach. There Williams gave him some last-minute instruction on keeping his hands underneath the ball, cradling it. Some on-field motivation from linebacker Dillion Lee couldn’t have hurt either. “Dude,” Humphrey said Lee told him, “just catch the ball.”
Humphrey gently caught Griffith’s perfectly placed kick over his shoulder, looking for all the world like a receiver. He spread his arms in celebration like he had just caught a touchdown, and Nick Saban allowed himself a smile. Two plays later, Alabama took the lead for good.