Perhaps because so much attention has been paid to the Alabama quarterback position over the past few seasons, there seems to have been less preseason conversation about the running backs, stretching back as far as Derrick Henry’s 2015 Heisman Trophy season.
That doesn’t mean Alabama hasn’t had great backs over that stretch — Bo Scarbrough, Kenyan Drake and last year’s most often-used trio: Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs.
That group was better than merely good. Jacobs is likely to be the first running back selected in the upcoming NFL Draft and there’s a fair possibility Damien Harris will be the second running back chosen. But it was a combination of circumstances that seemed to pull the spotlight away from the running backs at times. One factor was the Tua Tagovailoa explosion, of course. His exploits, especially early in the season (and Jalen Hurts’ SEC Championship Game heroics as well) soaked up attention like a sponge biscuit would soak up gravy.
Second, there have been gradual changes in Alabama’s offense over the past four years. Even if a back came along with Henry’s rare mix of size, speed and durability, it’s hard to imagine the Crimson Tide reverting to the hammer-on-anvil attack that UA used in the 2015 Auburn game, when Henry carried the ball 387 consecutive times. (OK, it was 46 times, including Alabama’s last 14 offensive plays, but it seemed like 387.)
To put that number in perspective, Damien Harris led Alabama with 150 rushing attempts in 15 games — 10 per game. Jacobs’ versatility accounted for part of that, as did Alabama’s depth and the one-sided nature of so many of the games. Jacobs had 120 carries — eight per game — which prompted at least one NFL “Draft analyst,” who I will allow to remain in hot-take obscurity, to wonder “if Jacobs was so good, why didn’t he run the ball more?” The short answer is he didn’t need to, which now makes me an NFL Draft Analyst as well.
But what about 2019? With less than two weeks to go in spring practice, Nick Saban addressed that issue for the first time Wednesday.
“I think Najee (Harris) and B-Rob (Brian Robinson, the former Hillcrest star) are both really good players,” Saban said. I think both of them have gotten a significant amount of experience in the past. I think they’re ready to take the next step in terms of making really significant contributions. They’ve both had really good springs.”
Najee Harris, the No. 1 running back recruit in the 2017 class, has always been viewed as an heir apparent, waiting his turn to take over for two years. Saban probably never viewed it quite like that, but the answer, pairing Harris and Robinson as a tandem, spoke loudly.
“Past that, Jerome Ford is sort of a newcomer who has shown some flashes,” Saban continued. We’ve got a couple of other guys (Trey Sanders and Keilan Robinson) coming in this freshman class (but not participating this spring.) We’ve had a lot of diversity at running back in the past, but most of the time we’ve had a freshman that’s contributed to that. Mark Ingram was a freshman when Glen Coffee was here. Trent Richardson played some when he was a freshman when Mark (Ingram) was the player. If you just go through the history of all the guys, I think Eddie Lacy was probably the only guy that didn’t play some (as a true freshman), and that was because he was a late qualifier and got here late in the summer. I would expect that we get some help from that group of young players as well.
“But I’m really satisfied with those two guys, Najee and Brian.”
“Really satisfied” may not sound like high praise from some coaches. When Saban says it, then it’s best to pay attention.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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