TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Doug Nussmeier was hired as the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama in January, he was met with a dilemma: How do you take a championship-winning offense and make it better? And how do you make your mark on it without running the risk of damaging the most fragile thing of all -- success?
Former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain won two titles in four seasons at Alabama with a heavy dose of the running game and a steady diet of power formations. Skeptics called it boring and unimaginative. The results were anything but. Alabama has averaged 34.15 points per game over the past three seasons.
McElwain's plan earned him a job as the head coach at Colorado State.
Now it's Nussmeier's turn to take the reins and lead the Alabama offense in the only direction fans in Tuscaloosa have come to expect: up.
But where do you go from No. 1?
"That is challenging," Nussmeier said Sunday in his first interview with the Alabama media. "It always is. Obviously, the things that we've done offensive here have been very, very successful. So you try and look at everything we've done, be objective about what really is good, what maybe can we grow and get better at and what background do I bring that maybe is something a little new that we can add to help the system be better as a whole."
Nussmeier's background could lead to a revolution at a school where the quarterback has rarely been the focus. Two Heisman Trophy finalists at tailback and a dominant defense have stolen the show since 2009. But the 41-year-old coordinator from the Northwest threatens to change that.
Nussmeier put up record numbers as the quarterback at Idaho in the early 1990s and spent a few years in the NFL. As a coach, he has a strong history of developing passers. While at Washington, he coached eventual first-round pick Jake Locker and sophomore Keith Price, who finished in the top 20 nationally in quarterback rating and touchdown passes. Nussmeier also tutored Marc Bulger for the Rams in the NFL and Drew Stanton at Michigan State.
At Alabama, Nussmeier inherits a quarterback who has already experienced success. AJ McCarron, the sophomore who guided Alabama to a title in his first season starting, returned to Tuscaloosa with even higher expectations for his encore performance. He has been named to the Davey O'Brien Award and Manning Award watch lists, a gauge of the country's most highly regarded signal-callers.
"When you look at his body of work, from where he started at the beginning of last season to where he ended, and then where he started spring ball and finished it and where he started fall camp, I think he continues to get better every day," Nussmeier said of McCarron. "He works extremely hard. He's very conscientious. I'm really excited about what the future holds for him. I think he has a very, very high ceiling."
McCarron is just one of the tools Nussmeier will have at his disposal when the season begins against Michigan on Sept. 1. Eddie Lacy, who has bided his time behind Trent Richardson at tailback, appears poised to burst onto the national scene. He ran for 674 yards and seven touchdowns last season, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. Despite losing the team's top four pass-catchers from a year ago, the number of talented receivers Alabama has in camp gives Nussmeier several options on the outside.
"He's a very bright guy with a lot of positive energy," coach Nick Saban said of Nussmeier. "He has a lot of good ideas that we've implemented into our offense. The players respond well to him; the players like him. The adjustments we've made in the passing game are going to be beneficial to our offensive team maybe being more explosive and creating more balance."
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said facing Nussmeier's offense in practice is like a "chess game."
"They do a good job in the passing game, very innovative," Smart said. "He kind of has an answer for everything you do."
But that innovative attitude might have its limits. Since Nussmeier's hire, Saban has insisted that the offensive philosophy will not change. Don't expect Alabama to run out in a spread offense anytime soon.
For his part, Nussmeier is doing his best to find a happy medium.
"It's like anything else, when you merge things, you try and look at what the strengths of each are, what the weaknesses are, and you try and build off both strengths," Nussmeier said. "Obviously, when you talk about offensive football, the terminology becomes a major issue and how you call things. Not what you call it today, but you have to look at the big picture. When you know you're running this play and you want to call it this and how does it fit within the system. Then when you want to grow and build off that play -- how are those terms going to fit to make sense for the players? Because everything you do has to be a teaching progression for the players."