Why Steve Sarkisian is giving Alabama's Najee Harris the ball more despite plans to the contrary
In retrospect, Alabama football offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian would like to change something about how he used personnel in 2019. Najee Harris taking 209 of Alabama’s 436 carries, on top of catching 27 passes, seemed a bit much.
“I think, ideally, we would like to have a little bit more rotation, so that Najee is maybe a little bit more fresh into the second half,” Sarkisian said in August. “Our job is to find the things that those guys (backup running backs) do well and when it is their turn to go in the game to make sure we're putting them in a position to have some success.”
The primary obstacle to a true running back rotation — one that Alabama has grown accustomed to in its recent history — was Sarkisian. He had little to no track record of maintaining one.
Entering Saturday’s game against Kentucky, Harris has 124 of UA’s 226 carries (54.8%) compared to 47.9% last year. He has 20 receptions in six games, compared to 27 in 13 games last season.
Of the 12 Nick Saban Alabama teams before Sarkisian’s arrival as offensive coordinator, only four of them had one running back responsible for greater than 44% of the team’s carries. One of those seasons was the outlier of all outliers: Derrick Henry’s 2015 season, when he won the Heisman Trophy on 395 carries, 61.5% of the team’s total attempts.
In the three seasons before Sarkisian arrived, the workload for UA’s leading rusher was lower than it had ever been under Saban. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, UA’s leading rusher failed to take more than 26.2% of the team’s carries, while none of the preceding nine seasons fell below 30.3%.
In comes Sarkisian, with a long track record of finding a feature back and sticking with him. In his five seasons as Washington’s head coach and one full season as USC’s head coach, his top running back always took at least 54% of the team’s carries, in some instances getting as high as 62% and 64.8%.
In many instances, garbage-time carries were the only thing preventing the workload from getting even higher. In 2013, Sarkisian’s last season at Washington, the Nos. 2 through 4 ball carriers got a combined 68 of their 138 carries in the fourth quarter, carries that likely would have gone to Bishop Sankey had the game not been in hand. Similar fourth-quarter numbers for backup running backs existed in 2012, 2011 and 2009.
Harris’ usage much more closely mirrors Sarkisian’s history than Alabama’s history under Saban.
“I think there is a fine line in finding that rhythm for your lead runner, but also your complementary backs,” Sarkisian said.
Harris' workload is justified in the statistics. Harris is sixth in the SEC in yards per carry (5.76) despite taking more carries than all but one SEC player (South Carolina’s Kevin Harris).
Najee Harris remains able to strike fear in opposing defenses, despite the physical toll of nearly 25 touches per game.
“You’re definitely going to feel him,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “It takes a toll on you, tackling such a physical back for four quarters.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson