Alabama football's crowded running back competition will be a spring football highlight | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Inevitably, the lion’s share of attention when Alabama football opens 2021 spring practice March 19 will be on the quarterback position, where sophomore Bryce Young is expected to begin at the top of Nick Saban’s non-existent depth chart.

For those who like a more crowded field, running back might be the spot to watch.

The emphasis on finding a single starter who plays most of the meaningful snaps isn’t the same as it at quarterback. Saban isn’t averse to playing two or three running backs. Even in 2020, Najee Harris emerged as a Heisman Trophy finalist and is likely to be one of the first two or three selections in the upcoming NFL Draft. Still, he got only 51.4 percent of Alabama’s total carries (251 of 477). By comparison, Derrick Henry had 61.5 percent of the Tide’s carries in 201,5 but no candidates from Henry’s planet have presented themselves for 2021.

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The opposite extreme came two seasons later in 2017. Quarterback Jalen Hurts technically had the most rushes on the team with 154 but, because sacks count as rushes in college statistical calculations, his actual total was 130. Damien Harris had 135 attempts, Bo Scarbrough had 124 and a patiently-waiting freshman Najee Harris had 61. (Note: never dismiss a running back after one season.)

The 2021 season will likely land somewhere between the two extremes. Experience, and a solid 2020 (483 yards on 91 carries), make Brian Robinson, Jr., who availed himself of the opportunity to return granted by the NCAA in the wake of COVID-19, the frontrunner. Alabama strength and conditioning coach Dr. Matt Rhea recently used his Twitter account to show Robinson’s strength and speed increases in Crimson Tide off-season workouts. 

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA;  Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. (4) hurdles Ohio State safety Josh Proctor (41) as he runs during the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

After Robinson, things get more complicated, and not only because there is another Robinson in the mix. Keilan Robinson gained 254 yards in 2019 before opting out of 2020, but is back for his sophomore season.

All three of the Crimson Tide’s running back signees from the 2020 class also return. The most obvious of those as a freshman was Jase McClellan, who averaged an eye-popping 10.3 yards per carry (245 yards on 23 carries) in mop-up duty. Roydell Williams also saw some duty late in games.

"We’ve been encouraged by both of those guys,” Saban said in a Zoom call last November. “They haven't got a lot of opportunity so far, but we certainly feel like they can contribute and they're very capable and now they're going to get a little more opportunity as running backs and in some situations on special teams.”

Kyle Edwards, the Crimson Tide’s third running back signee, redshirted last season and returns. Camar Wheaton, a five-star running back from Lakeview, Texas, signed with Alabama in February but is not expected to enroll until the summer. (The No. 2 running back in America in the Class of 2022 rankings, Emmanuel Henderson of Geneva County in southeast Alabama, is scheduled to announce a commitment Saturday, March 13, and is an Alabama lean, so don’t expect anyone to turn off the talent tap any time soon.) 

Then there is Trey Sanders, the gifted sophomore who was seriously injured in a car accident last November. There has been no word that Sanders will be cleared for contact this spring, but there was a buzz of excitement this week when Alabama director of football rehabilitation Jeremy Gsell released a short video of Sanders running on an anti-gravity treadmill. 

After all, in Alabama’s running back room, there’s always room for one more.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt