TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 24: Eddie Lacy #42 of the Alabama Crimson Tide breaks a tackle by Zach Stadther #61 of the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
"I do think that we have a couple running backs that will probably create some competition. But we've always played more than one running back. I mean we've never been just a one-back team. We had Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson sharing time as players. Hopefully, we'll be able to find somebody as productive as those two guys have been to share that role again in the future." – Nick Saban
The Tide’s running back position is facing it’s greatest uncertainty since 2009 thanks to the early departure of Trent Richardson, a lingering turf toe injury to top backup Eddie Lacy that held him out of spring practice, and some intriguing position experiments during fall camp.
Junior Eddie Lacy is still the front-runner for the role of feature back in an offense that has routinely utilized at least three different backs over the last five years. As the number two back last season Lacy rushed for 674 yards with an astounding 7.1 ypc average, while also adding another 131 yards receiving despite struggling with the aforementioned turf toe for most of the season. The ability and talent are there, along with two seasons in the offense under his belt, but there are still questions regarding his ability to shoulder the sort of workhorse burden that Richardson and Mark Ingram carried before him after missing so much conditioning work in spring and summer. By his own admission:
"I'm not where I'm supposed to be, due to the fact that I was out for so long, but going through camp and the back end of summer, I'm not that far off."
So far in camp Lacy has been cleared for practice, but the staff is still bringing him along slowly. For example, during the first scrimmage of the fall Lacy’s reps were limited to only eight carries, though he still led all rushers with 57 yards. Finding someone to help shoulder the load and compliment Lacy will be a priority, but there’s precious little meaningful experience at the moment.
Fellow junior Jalston Fowler led the running backs during the spring after being the number three/change of pace back behind Lacy in 2011. With 385 yards rushing and four TDs (including this one!) in mostly mop up duty, Fowler proved that he was more than capable of taking on a bigger role in the offense. After some position experiments over the last few days, though, just what that role is going to be is somewhat up in the air. Bama fans Fowler was spotted in one of the media viewing periods lining up in the backfield as a fullback with Lacy behind him, and has been splitting time between the running backs and the TEs ever since. While the true fullback was quickly phased out in favor of using a TE as an H-back under Saban, Alabama has used an I Formation package with a running back lined up at FB before. Fowler himself routinely lined up at fullback last season in the Tide’s short yardage and goal line packages, while in 2009 Roy Upchurch was utilized as a FB later in the season, most memorably in the Iron Bowl when he caught the winning TD pass from that position. At 6-1 242, Fowler is certainly the biggest of the Tide’s stable of running backs, large enough to be a lead blocker, while his skill as a receiver out of the backfield does give the offensive staff greater options with their play calling. At this point we can only guess at the extent of his use in that role right now, but with a new offensive coordinator who did use a fullback at his previous post, there’s a better than average chance we should see Fowler with a greater role than simply the number two back.
Behind Lacy and Fowler, Alabama has a couple of highly sought after recruits that will have a chance this season to prove they were worth their recruiting hype. Five star recruit T.J. Yeldon enrolled early and made a huge splash in the spring, ultimately being named the offensive MVP of the A Day Game after piling up 171 total yards and a TD. Saban praised his efforts over the spring and spoke of the importance of his emergence after the game:
"I think that's important for us because we needed somebody like that. T.J. is one of those guys who can do everything - he's a good runner, he's got some power, he's got some speed, he's a really good receiver. Hopefully, he'll continue to mature and have a pretty significant role in helping our offense next year."
With questions concerning Lacy’s ability to shoulder the sort of significant work load the top back has been expected to carry over the last few years and Fowler’s role in the backfield potentially evolving into being more of a H-Back than a RB, Yeldon has a golden opportunity to work his way into a featured role.
Besides Yeldon, Alabama has a second former five star recruit in Dee Hart who, at 5-9 190, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the typical bruising between the tackles runners that Alabama has favored. Expected to be a contributor in 2011, Hart suffered an ACL injury during the summer and redshirted. He appears to be back at 100%, showcasing his speed and elusiveness during the spring. Like Fowler, Hart’s unique skill set gives the Tide offense one more weapon to utilize in a non-traditional way. Hart brings significant value as a receiver to the RB position, and is also being looked at as a kick returner on special teams.
Sophomore Blake Sims spent last season and all of spring working with the running backs after getting a look at QB, but he’s since moved back to quarterback during the fall since the transfer of Phillip Sims left Alabama with only a redshirt freshman and an incoming true freshman to backup starter A.J. McCarron. Sims’s future most likely isn’t at quarterback for the Tide, but like we say every year about the athletic backups he could be a good option should Alabama decide to utilize him as a wildcat QB.
Finally, Kenyan Drake arrives at Alabama as a former four-star prospect and the #13 overall back in the country. With so much depth ahead of him and without the benefit of an early enrollment like Yeldon, Drake will most likely redshirt.