The numbers have looked much the same for Damien Harris for three straight seasons. Alabama’s senior running back had 9.7 carries per game as a sophomore in 2016 while averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He had 9.6 carries per game as a junior in 2017 and averaged 7.4 yards per carry.
Through four games this year, he’s averaging 7.75 carries per game and 7.4 yards per carry. The slight dip in carries isn’t due to any change in production but to the offensive output. He hasn’t had to post a single carry in the fourth quarter this season. Alabama’s offense buries opponents early. Like quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Harris has been able to rest in the fourth quarter.
“Our offense has been pretty successful,” he said. “So I think things are going the way they’re supposed to go. Coach is calling plays that need to be called. We’ve been winning by a good amount, so I don’t think I can really complain.”
Harris has 358 career carries through three-plus seasons. That’s fewer than Derrick Henry had in his 2015 season alone, when he had 395 runs on the way to the Heisman.1
Plenty of factors play into that. Sophomore Najee Harris has played about equally with Damien Harris this season, as did former running back Bo Scarbrough in 2016 and 2017. Junior Josh Jacobs has also been healthy this season and has 23 carries already, often lining up at the same time as another running back.
“I feel like each one of the running backs in the room could start anywhere,” Jacobs said. “So putting two of them on the field at the same time, of course there are going to be matchup problems (for defenses).”
The division of labor continues beyond the top three backs. Sophomore Brian Robinson also has 22 carries this season, but 17 of those have come in the fourth quarter of games. He has yet to carry the ball in the first half this season.
“They kind of script all this: How they want to get guys the ball, who they want to have certain touches at certain points in the game,” Damien Harris said. “That’s kind of their game plan, and we just trust in them. Whatever they call or whoever they put in, that’s what we go with.”
The balance isn’t just between the running backs, but also the larger balance of the offense. Alabama had 33 pass attempts that led to 415 yards in the air against Texas A&M. That was the most passing yards in a game for the Crimson Tide since posting 449 against Florida in 2014.
Meanwhile, Alabama’s 28 rushing attempts were the fewest in a game since 2013. Its 109 rushing yards were the fewest since a win over Arkansas in 2014. That hasn’t been the norm, but was what was needed on Saturday.
“We had like what, 400 yards passing? I think that that kind of played a factor in it,” Damien Harris said. “It was kind of a game where we needed to air the ball out and get the ball to guys on the perimeter. So I think that’s a good part about our offense being so balanced.”
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1By another measure, Harris could pass Henry’s 2015 workload in the next game. He has 38 career receptions, making for 396 total offensive touches. Henry had 11 receptions in 2015, giving him 406 total touches that season.