2014 Alabama Spring Practice Preview: Running Backs

High school All-Americans can still get a veteran ass-chewing.

The talent is there, without question, and what concerns exist are mainly how to distribute -and hold on to- the ball.

Good news, faithful. For the first time this Spring, we can definitively report that there are absolutely no major questions with this unit. Of Alabama's skills positions, none are as central to the Tide's success, nor has any group been more acclaimed (outside of the OL), than the running backs. And this season, Alabama is stacked like Jessica Rabbit, with an output that makes you salivate only slightly less.

There are a lot of guys to get to, and a lot of observations (and minor questions), so we're going to take this unit in two parts (as with the O Line preview). Today, we'll look back at the production and the incumbents. Tomorrow, we'll review the newbs and try to forecast the 2014 running game.

Returning Depth Chart:

Note that I've included receiving yards here (as we should see more catches out of the backs in the years to come - my final Kiffin column next week will explain a bit more, and I've touched on this previously ). I've also included turnovers of all stripes, since the perception seems to be that our backs (some, or all) have had issues with those. All stats are from CFB Stats or Team Rankings, and I've omitted obvious change-up plays and or players no longer with the Tide (e.g., WR runs, graduates, transfers, etc). I have also included Blake Sims' numbers, as we all hope that he at least gets a few packages to show his run-pass skills this season. Finally, the below chart is arranged by raw rushing yardage, not carries/YPC/projected depth chart, etc..

Player

Class

Att

Yards

YPC

TD

Rec.

R. Yards

YPR

R. TD

TO

T.J. Yeldon

Jr.

207

1235

5.97

14

20

183

9.15

-

5

Kenyan Drake

Jr.

92

694

7.54

8

12

135

11.25

1

4

Derrick Henry

So.

35

382

10.91

3

1

61

61

1

-

Jalston Fowler

Sr.

20

88

4.4

-

7

15

2.14

5

-

Altee Tenpenny

So.

22

82

3.73

1

1

4

4

-

-

Blake Sims

R.Sr.

15

61

4.07

-

-

-

-

-

-

Good News:

The good news is, well, abundant. First, despite the conception that Alabama turned the ball over a ton on the ground, the numbers simply don't indicate that. Of the returning players, and their almost-400 carries, Alabama lost only nine balls. Contrast that to AJ McCarron's 7 INTs and 1 lost fumble (three of those TO's against Oklahoma, no less), and it's a pretty favorable touch : turnover ratio for the backs.

Also, it bears mentioning that we think of a thundering Alabama running game, and the concomitant toughness associated with that mentality, as being the defining Saban trademark. However, the greater hallmark of what Saban wants the offense to be is balanced. And, frankly, the offense under Nussmeier was anything but balanced.

Fans look back to 2012 as a paradigm of Alabama football, and we fondly remember Lacy taking over the SECCG or trucking a certain Heisman-wannabe from a school who we shall not name, and for whom I have only disdain.


Never.Gets.Old.Dot.Com

However, we need to adjust expectations for the talent on hand and recall that 2012 and 2013 were some of the least-balanced of the Saban era. For instance, 2013 saw Alabama rush 100 times more than the Tide passed...even as the ground game yielded 600 yards less and only 28 TDs. Meanwhile, the 2012 team -the one we all screamed "run the ball" towards- was amazingly lopsided towards the ground game. Alabama had 250 more rush attempts than pass attempts, netting nearly 3200 yards and 37 TDs.

In fact, individual back production was actually on par with the transcendent 2012 unit (and, as a team, Alabama's 5.8 YPC in 2013 exceeded 2012's 5.6 YPC). T.J.Yeldon averaged 6.3 YPC on 175 carries his 2012 Freshman AA/All-SEC campaign, behind a veteran offensive line that put three guys in the NFL. His longest rush was 43 yards. Fast forward a season and as the feature back Yeldon earned only 32 additional touches -finishing with 207 carries on the season. But, here's the catch, his production was almost identical (6.0 YPC), and he actually ripped a longer one (60 yd). And it wasn't just Yeldon, either. Kenyan Drake's 2013 output exceeded his 2012 gains (7.5 YPC vs. 6.9 YPC). Fowler's rushing production was almost identical to 2012 (88 yards v. 85 yards), but the kid became an H-Back/FB beast, and was nigh-unstoppable near the goal line on passing attempts. Fowler recorded ZERO goal line touchdowns in the passing game the previous three years, then, with defenses keying in on Yeldon, Newdie increased that number to five TD catches...three of which were of the "Cody 5" variety. Those five touchdowns, by the way, equal Fowler's first three years on campus...combined. (NB: he took a RS in 2012).

What you had in the Nussmeier regime, then, was necessarily not a drop-off of production from the backs, so much as a lack of balance -or at least willingness to try and impose balance, which was something that was quite notable (and coached-for) in the McElwain years. That lack of balance, you have to think, is one very good reason Coach Nuss is in Ann Arbor today. Put your blame on a new OL coach (even though it's a familiar scheme), put it on new OL starters, put it on nagging but undisclosed injuries, put it on play-calling, but you cannot place the lack of running production on the backs...they just didn't get the number of carries that a balanced offense (2010, 2011) sees, much less the volume that an imposing run team demands (2009, 2012).

Bad News:

We didn't touch on it so much as hinted at it above: the ball distribution, frankly, sucked. Alabama rushed for the fewest attempts since the godforsaken-please-make-stop-no-more-bubble-screen year of 2007, Saban's first on campus and the failed experiment of Major Applewhite learning what it feels like when testicles distend. (I am very hard on offensive coordinators, and I am teasing these men out of love. Both Coach Applewhite and Coach Nussmeier certainly have great futures as de facto HCIW in a post-apocalyptic era of football, when the run game is a by-gone memory of we olds and wide receivers rightly feared safeties).

1. Drake's Head and Drake's Ball Control: Damn. Kenyan Drake reminds you of a bigger, stronger Lache Seastrunk, no? Very fast. Very tough. Elusive. We think of the kid as upright, yet next to a 6'2" Yeldon or elebenty'' Henry, he's the lithe one. Seriously, look at his moves in this Spring Practice preview. Still, it's hard to ignore that Drake was persona non gratis in the second half of two major games, and actually did not play in two others. Blocking? Discipline? Mouthiness? No one knows (though we have some good guesses). Still, as a second string back, appearing 11 times in a run-balanced offense, you'd expect far more than 92 attempts. Whatever Drake's issues are, with just the returning depth on-tap, he needs to get it sorted out. We need him, and he is supremely talented...probably Alabama's best "home run threat" (even if his longest rush didn't come near Yeldon's breakaway). And, man, that fumbling problem (4 in the last three games).

2. Newdie's Role: Jalston was an absolute utility beast in his first two seasons with limited touches: wrecking the goal line, gritting out tough yards, in-motion H-Back, blocking back etc. Last season, he seemed tentative with the rock and excelled largely in a pass catching role. This season, will we see more of Newdie in an FB/H-Back slot, with far more passes coming his way out of the backfield? It seems clear at this point that his future is as a soft-hands upback, with a superlative blocking ability. That said, after his traumatic knee injury, it would be good to get his confidence back up to carry the ball effectively on short yardage downs.

3. Yeldon's "Bigness" and Yeldon's Ball Control: Yes, the raw numbers are great; yes, a top-25 back; yes, NFL size (6'2", 220), hands, fluidity, breakaway speed, etc. An Alabama record-holder guy in about half a dozen categories. A special guy. Truly. So, what happened? What it is about the goal line that makes us hold our breath? What is it about those "inches to go" that make us wonder why he played smaller than his frame? It does not take a genius to review last year's tape v. 2012's tape and see that something just wasn't there in 2013. The urgency to the hole -and the effort- seemed to be lacking; the north-south violence was mostly gone. In their stead, Yeldon pried and picked his way, east-west, for most of the season. Was it lack of trust in a new OL? An undisclosed injury (he certainly seemed to play like a guy with a sports hernia)? The defense keying in on him? Will 2014 be a reprise or a rebirth? And those five fumbles can't be dismissed.

4. Those Freshman: I want to believe in my heart of hearts that Nussmeier just mismanaged the roster. Give the production when the backs did touch the ball I'm going with that. Otherwise, how do you explain the nation's high school record-holding running back getting 35 touches all season. Kamara? Needed some seasoning, no doubt. We wish him well, even as he moves on - his head space just was never a fit for Saban. Finally, Altee Tenpenny, a guy who is very versatile, dynamic, soft hands, and bruising...22 carries (or, six more than Christion Jones...a wide receiver). We know that Saban won't play a running back until he can learn and execute a blocking scheme. That said, why burn redshirts of two exemplary backs, and use them less than 5 carries per game...combined. Something was wrong here, and it wasn't necessarily the talent.

P.S. Did I mention that every time Derrick Henry touched the ball 6+ times, he hit 100 yards? Not that I'm bitter or anything.

4. Turnovers:

Goodness gracious, nine lost fumbles (twice as many +1) as in in 2012, and 17 overall turnovers -the most in five seasons? For a team that pays lip service to defense, ball security, special teams, and winning the right way, we did an awful lot wrong with the ball...especially for veterans. Will 2014 see a return to dumb ole' things like "covering up" the ball? We need it.

Tomorrow: We'll look at the newcomers, the projected depth chart, and how they will likely fit in Lane Kiffin's scheme.

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