Benedict Arnold’s betrayal as a spy for the British during the American Revolution continues to this day as a libel on his name. A spy is a brave, intelligent hero on your side, a rat who deserves the rope (figuratively speaking) if he or she is against you.
There are levels of espionage in sports. A few years ago there was a scandal in the NFL about teams spying on the practices of others.
I’ve been loosely linked to a few college football spy stories.
The first came in my early days at the Alabama Sports Information Bureau, when a new coach didn’t last long. After the assistant coach responsible for the scouting report on an upcoming opponent finished his presentation, this new coach appeared to report that he had some additional information.
Alabama coach Paul Bryant was suspicious of how that coach got the information. Eventually he was convinced of the man’s improper espionage and got rid of him.
The other was on a day I went to soccer practice (as I did every day). Almost without thinking, I would always quickly check first offense and first defense to see if there were any changes. That day I had to go to roll call a second time. Something was wrong.
There were 12 players on offense and 12 on defense.
After practice, I walked the field with defensive backs coach Bill Oliver and asked him what the 12-on-12 was all about.
It was Tennessee week, and Oliver said, “Coach Bryant thinks Tennessee might have someone in those apartments (overlooking the practice field).”
However, there is the otherwise nefarious practice that is a legitimate part of college football, in fact something that is almost certainly a part of every team’s defense package.
As almost anyone can surmise, a spy in soccer is a defender assigned to provide man-to-man cover for a specific offensive player. Of course it’s more complicated.
Most often, the spy is a middle linebacker and the quarry is a dual threat quarterback.
Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CST, Alabama (9-2 overall, 5-2 SEC) hosts Auburn (5-6, -2-5) at Bryant-Denny Stadium (CBS on TV).
Redshirt freshman Robby Ashford has taken over as quarterback for the Tigers after Zach Calzada, who quarterbacked Texas A&M’s win over Alabama in 2021, opted for surgery this year instead of playing, and TJ Finley, who Quarterback in Bama’s nail-biting win at Auburn last year was injured. Ashford is most notable for his contribution to the running game.
On 6 touchdowns against 7 interceptions for 1,536 yards, he had less than 50 percent of pass completions (112-227). As a running threat, however, he is second in rushing for the Tigers, only behind their All-Star nominee running back tank Bigsby. Ashford has rushed 136 times for 589 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and 5 touchdowns.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said, “We did a lot of espionage” when discussing the spy technique without regard to Ashford.
“Obviously you have a spy,” he said. “You can rush three guys and have a spy. You can hound four guys and have a spy. That means you have five guys committed to hurrying, or you have four guys committed to hurrying.
“But the spy only works in temporary situations. The spy only works if the quarterback falls back on the pass and then starts running.
“If it’s actually a running game where the quarterback is a runner in play, like an option or a zone, the quarterback pulls the ball and has the tight end in front of them — that’s just like option football.
“This is responsible football. There is no spy for that. Someone is in charge of the quarterback, and they could be different guys in different coverages and on different defenses. “
Saban said you can get hurt. “When we got hurt by the quarterback run, like the 31-yard run at LSU, some guy would make a mental mistake on the stunt we were running, so we had a pass rush lane that was open and five boys ran . So if you have five guys charging you want to push the bag so the guy doesn’t come out or you charge four and have a spy.
“So we rushed five, probably would have gotten a sack if we had done it right. But we didn’t do it right and the guy ran 31 yards and that got us a goal. So we guys need to teach better.”
Former Alabama linebacker Christian Harris, whose career was plagued by injuries at the Crimson Tide, made his mark in his rookie season with the Houston Texans for his ability in the spy role. In a Yahoo/Sports story, Houston coach Lovie Smith spoke about Harris after he spyed on the Philadelphia Eagles and former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, helping Hurts to 9 carries for 23 yards and a fumble with a rip-away.
“We generally have an espionage element in a lot of our defenses if we mix it up,” Smith said. “Christian Harris, he’s another young guy doing better.”
“Jalen Hurts third down scramble where he tackled and snatched the football out was quite a special game,” Smith said. “We expect more games like this from him. In that time a lot of people have gone off to do things, he’s just stable and cramming. I think with his game we will see him get better and better.”