Nick Saban pleased with Alabama football running backs but holds his cards close to vest | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

College football doesn’t always break down into simple numbers, but there is one that keeps occurring in my mind as Alabama football prepares for the 2021 season: 1,466. 

If it immediately rings a bell, then you are a serious Alabama buff. It isn’t the amount in dollars that it would take to get into a College Football Playoff game, although between expansion and NCAA lost-cause legal fees, which eventually trickle down to the conferences and the member schools, it might be that way before long. It’s not the number of Kool-Aid tie-ins that you will see when freshman Ga’Quincy McKinstry makes his college football debut in Atlanta, presumably breaking through a wall at Mercedes-Benz Stadium en route to the field. 

That number 1,466 represents the yards Najee Harris gained in his stellar senior year in 2020. It wasn’t a school record, since rushing machine Derrick Henry probably put that mark out of reach with 2,219 in 15 games in 2015. But it does make for an interesting proposition: what’s the over/under on Brian Robinson rushing yards this season? Could the senior have a 1,000-yard season, assuming he plays 13 to 15 games and is in relatively good health? Or could it be a 2018 committee situation?

Crimson running back Jase McClellan (21) runs up the sidelines for a long gain during the University of Alabama A-Day game Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Bryant-Denny Stadium. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Alabama had no 1,000-yard rusher that season, rotating Damien Harris (876 yards), Najee Harris (783) and Josh Jacobs (640). Setting aside the jaw-dropping depth in your running back corps when your third-leading rusher is a first-round NFL draft choice the next spring, could the Crimson Tide be headed that way this fall? 

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Nick Saban seemed pleased with the position in his Wednesday media call, although he wasn’t asked directly about the 1,000-yard situation and probably wouldn’t have seemed so pleased if he had been asked. 

“There is a lot of competition there,” Saban said. “I mean, I’m really pleased with the guys at that position. B-Rob (Robinson) has had a really good camp. He did a nice job in the scrimmage. Jase (McClellan), Roydell (Williams), Trey Sanders, all those guys really have been playing well. I’m pleased with the progress that all those guys have shown and made in the spring as well as in camp. We’re excited about that position."

That’s about as much of an endorsement as you will get, even from the kinder, gentler Saban who has toned down his podium style in the Zoom era, more likely because he can’t make eye contact with a potential media target than because he has mellowed. This isn’t a paean to hometown standout Robinson, who promises to be different than Najee Harris, right down to avoiding the Harris Hurdle for a more gravity-based style.

Instead, it is a broader contemplation of the Alabama offense and what a number like 1,000 yards might mean. Would that be a good year if a couple of other running backs combine for 1,000 more? Would it mean that speculation about a slight reversion to past Saban teams, built on fierce defense complemented by ball-control offense, is correct?

In the absence of any statistics from Saturday’s scrimmage, there is no real way to know precisely what Saban meant by a “nice job” from Robinson. Did he grind out first downs? Did he make his own extra yards behind an offensive line that is still developing? Did he take some of the burden off of Bryce Young and the other quarterbacks?

Without advocating any sort of wager, or saying anything bad about Robinson, I would probably go under the 1,000 yards simply because the position is so deep. But one of the great questions of 2021 is whether a potential 1,000-yard season will be a sign of explosiveness, or one of necessity.

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