In a sign of what the rest of the country thinks of Alabama's running backs, T.J. Yeldon is getting pre-season All-American and even Heisman Trophy talk, even though his experience at Alabama is only as a backup. And why not? If Lacy indeed goes in the first round this year, then the last three guys to be the 2nd-string running back at Alabama will also be the last three guys from any school to go in the first round as a running back.
Lacy may have been the best running back in the country in 2012 when he was healthy, but he will scarcely be missed at Alabama. Yeldon highlights the returnees, but last year's third-stringer, Kenyon Drake, also has elite running skills, and if 242-pound rumbler Jalston Fowler returns to health he will bring a career 7.2 yards per carry average along with him. And that ain't all: the Tide inked a ridiculous crop of stud running back commits in 2013.
Obviously the 6'2", 216-pound Yeldon has more to commend him than his experience as a backup, such as, for example, his 1108 yards rushing, 6.3 yards per carry average, and 12 TDs from the 2012 season. Yeldon is quicksilver in a broken field, and appears to be on the verge of breaking a long one almost every time he gets through the line of scrimmage. He also has good straight-ahead power and can convert on short yardage, and is a solid receiver who averaged 11.9 yards on 11 receptions with one very large receiving TD. His only weakness is that his upright running style makes him susceptible to being tripped up, or else he might've had a few more long TD runs last year.
Drake didn't get as much playing time in competitive contests as Eddie Lacy did as a third-stringer in 2010, or as Fowler got in 2011. It wasn't because he can't run; Drake was arguably the most explosive runner on the squad, and his 6.7 yards per carry average was the best among Bama runner with 25 or more carries. Word is it was because of his blocking; another possibility is that, at least for a #3 back, Saban is looking for a bruiser to beat down teams that are already fatigued. In that regard, the 6'1" 204-pound Drake has decent power but not in the Lacy-Fowler ball park.
Fowler figures to get plenty of playing time if he is fully healthy, both at running back and at H-back, but he suffered a severe knee injury during the season last year. Even a normal ACL tear usually takes more than a year to rehab to 100%, and Fowler's seemed worse. Until I hear something definitive from the team, I will not assume Fowler plays in 2013; if he does play, it seems unlikely he will be at top form. Unfortunately, much the same can be said for Dee Hart.
You could say that opens the door for a true freshman to compete, but honestly the door is always open for an elite true freshman running back. Like wide receiver, running back is a position that depends more on natural talent than on coaching and experience, which is not in any way, shape or form a knock on Burns, the best running-backs coach in the business. While Bama running backs have consistently improved after spending a year with Burns, the best ones have stepped right in to play a major role.
This year's crop of recruits includes no less than 4 running backs who were each listed among the top 100 high school football players at any position by Rivals: the 6'3", 243-pound Floridian Derrick Henry; Tyren Jones, 5'9" and 215, from Marietta, Georgia; Alvin Kamara, 5'10", 197 from Norcross, Georgia; and Altee Tenpenny of North Little Rock, who measures in at 6'0" and 212.
It will be an upset if anybody but T.J. Yeldon starts this fall, but any of these four guys could realistically compete with Drake for the backup job. The best bet will be Henry, the only one who is already on campus. As a piledriving monster of a high school tailback, Henry broke Ken Hall's 59-year-old national record for high school career rushing yards, finishing with a whopping 12,112 yards. Henry scored 55 touchdowns his senior year alone, while averaging 327.8 yards rushing per game. The film shows surprising shiftiness and good acceleration alongside the power you'd expect from a guy who is a lot bigger than most of the players trying to tackle him.
Henry will get a serious look at tailback, and if he makes his mark, that's where he'll stay. But if he can't beat out Drake in the spring, remember that some analysts think linebacker may be his best position. Linebacker at Alabama doesn't have the thinnest depth chart in the world, either, but at least you don't have 7 Rivals 100 guys competing for a single spot on the field.
Tenpenny looks a little bit like T.J. Yeldon, both in build and in the running style seen on his film. He has a little more high-end speed than Henry. Although Tenpenny missed his entire junior season with a broken ankle, impressive workout performances left recruiters drooling, and he backed it up with 1379 yards, 21 TDs, and 7.1 yards per carry as a senior.
Jones may be a few inches shorter than the rest of these guys, but he is built like a sparkplug and can match power running with any of them, showing no qualms about diving into a crowded line to grind out short yardage. He also has plenty of burst and shake, and features a circle button spin move almost reminiscent of the departed Lacy. Jones rushed for 1672 yards and 16 TDs as a senior despite missing the last 3 games with a sprained knee.
Kamara may be the only one of these guys who clocks in at under 200 pounds, but he showcases good power nevertheless, along with excellent straight-ahead speed, and may have the best hands of the lot. Kamara piled up 2264 yards rushing in leading Norcross to the 6A Georgia state championship, averaging 208 yards per game rushing and receiving in the 5-game playoff run, and throwing in a couple of 30-yard completed passes to boot.
Finally, it's a numbers game at tailback for Alabama in 2013, and frankly, the numbers are too high even if Fowler and Hart don't come back. If all of these guys want to play football at Alabama, one or more of them is going to have to accept a move to linebacker or defensive back. But they're all blue-chippers, and you have to figure that each of them will probably start out at tailback.