Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles that that will break down the Alabama football team on a position-by-position basis.
After a terrible year rushing the football in 2006, nearly everyone expected a rather large improvement in 2007. I, for one, went on the record saying that I felt the rushing game would be significantly better in 2007. Unfortunately, things didn't quite pan out quite as well as most of us, myself included, had expected.
In all fairness, we did run the football slightly better than we did in 2006, as our rushing game produced almost 400 yards more rushing, and our yard-per-carry average was almost one-half yard per carry better than it was in 2006. But don't let the numbers deceive you. The rushing game still wasn't very good -- we finished 60th in the nation in rushing offense, and 8th in the SEC -- and we really struggled to generate a consistent rushing attack all year long.
It has become readily apparently that our beloved ol' Nicktator is not a happy man with our current tailback situation. Saban currently has three tailback commitments in this class -- Ivan Matchett, Jermaine Preyear, and Chris Jordan -- and we are actively pursuing at least one more tailback.
So exactly what is the source of the Nicktator's unhappiness? Let's look a bit closer at the individual players themselves.
Terry Grant started out the year with all of the hype, as he racked up 307 yards and five touchdowns, averaging over seven yards per carry, against two very poor run defenses (Western Carolina and Vanderbilt). After that, though, Grant declined significantly, and really only had one other good game the rest of the year, which came against Tennessee. And even that game is a bit suspect. He put up good traditional numbers, but it was the passing game that carried us that day, and honestly Grant had success only against defensive sets that were heavily designed to stop the pass. Incidentally, Grant also spent a good deal of time in Saban's doghouse. As a runner he was consistently prone to trying to use his speed to break everything to the outside, instead of letting the blocking develop and selecting the right hole. That didn't fly too well with the Nicktator -- that technique works pretty well in Lumberton, but not quite so good against the likes of LSU -- and it resulted with Grant ending up on the bench.
As a whole, Grant needs to improve greatly as a runner. He's not impressive physically; he has decent, though far from great, speed, but he is also very small, and he is going to remain very small. His frame really cannot add any more weight without losing a great deal of athleticism in the process, so he is going to remain a diminutive player. There is nothing overly wrong about those two facts, mind you, but it does highlight the importance of him developing as a fundamentally sound runner. If you are a physically dominating runner, or lightning fast, you can be a bit technically unsound and still do well at this level. But for small players without particularly good speed -- which sums up Grant quite well -- technical soundness is simply a prerequisite for success at this level.
Grant's lack of size hurts him in another way as well. It is not that he is "too small to handle the beating" as a lot of "experts" would tell you. It is simply that to be an every-down running back you must be able to convert short-yardage situations, and a large chunk of your carries as an every-down back will be in short-yardage situations against crowded fronts. And that is where the lack of size hurts. No coach is going to consistently give short-yardage carries to a back who is 5'8 and 188 pounds. As a result, Grant is going to be a situational back at most.
Further muddying the waters for Grant is an injury. He was a non-factor late in the season with injury issues, and the fear is that Grant is suffering from the dreaded sports hernia. If that is indeed the case, Grant will be headed to Philadelphia for surgery, and he will miss Spring practice. That will only further hurt his chances for playing time in 2008.
All told, Grant is simply not the solution as an every-down back, and he has a good deal of work ahead of him if he is ever going to realize his potential in his limited role. None of this is to say that he cannot be a valuable player for the Tide, mind you. A quick player who is elusive in space, and one that can play on third down as a result of his pass blocking abilities and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, is a highly valuable commodity. However, the simple fact of the matter is that Grant's size will not allow him to be an every-down back, and he has a lot of progress to make as a runner, notwithstanding his injury issues.
Glen Coffee is a very different player, to put it mildly.
When I watch film of Coffee, I always try to find his strong suit. I try to find that one thing that he does as a runner that sets him apart, the one thing he excels at. With Coffee, two years later, I'm still trying to find that one thing.
The harsh truth of the matter is that Coffee doesn't do anything particularly well. He's not a physical runner at less than 200 pounds, but by the same token he does not have particularly good speed, so he really cannot break any long runs. To illustrate the latter point, Coffee has had 177 carries for the Tide in his playing career, yet only two of those carries went for twenty yards or longer, and both of those came in garbage time -- one against South Carolina in 2005 long after the route was on, and the other in 2007 against Western Carolina.
None of that would be a major problem if Coffee attacked the hole with great explosiveness and acceleration, or even displayed good field position, which could make him a very valuable back particularly in short-yardage situations. Unfortunately, he doesn't do any of those things either. He doesn't have very much acceleration, he is not explosive at the point of attack, and he often struggles to make one cut and go, something that is required for power runners. More concerning, Coffee does not do a good job of protecting the football, and his fumbles nearly cost us the Ole Miss game.
Coffee played a good bit in 2007, but he did so mainly as the lesser of the evils. We tried to use him as a physical runner to create some semblance of an inside rushing attack, but it was the football equivalent of trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. It wasn't necessarily a bad idea by the coaching staff, because you need an inside running game and Coffee was the closest thing that we had to an inside runner, but in the long-term it is just not what you are looking for.
At this point, Coffee just really doesn't do anything particularly well, and his future at Alabama is very much on shaky ground. I expect that he will see some carries next year, but as a whole I expect a more limited role.
The most physically gifted of the current crop of tailbacks is undoubtedly Roy Upchurch. The rising junior from Tallahassee simply brings a skill set unlike any other player on the roster. He has the sheer speed that people like to think Grant has, and honestly he may very well be the fastest player on the roster. Moreover, he has great explosive ability, and he uses that to attack the line of scrimmage with a very physical style, despite the fact that he is a bit on the small side as well.
Things haven't been all roses for Upchurch, though. He arrived as a highly-touted freshman, and then went down for the year with an ankle injury. At the time it was reported as avascular necrosis -- a very serious bone condition in which the bone loses blood supply, thus causing the bone to die; incidentally this was the injury that ended Bo Jackson's football playing career -- and he missed all of the 2005 season. He recovered for 2006, seeing brief time early in the season, and the same condition struck yet again. By this point everyone was denying that he had avascular necrosis, but nevertheless he missed another season.
Coming into the 2007 season, I was very much in doubt of Upchurch's future. He seemed to be destined for a medical scholarship, but somewhere along the way he stayed healthy. He didn't exactly set the world on fire in 2007, but he did show flashes of brilliance, and he found himself around five touches per game. He still has progress to make, but it doesn't take long watching Upchurch to see why people are so intrigued by his upside.
If he can remain healthy in 2008, and I understand that may be a big if, I look for Upchurch to see an expanded role in the offense. I am not certain that he can win the starting job, but as long as his health stays with him, I imagine his touches per game could very well double in 2008. His raw skills are simply so impressive that he will get on the field if his health will allow him to get the repetitions needed to develop as a player.
Demetrius Goode plays an interesting role in all of this because he, unlike the others, is actually a Saban recruit. After initially signing with Kentucky, Goode did not qualify and went to Hargrave instead. Once Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, he quickly put the press on Goode, and he ended up signing with Alabama.
In the tangible sense, Goode is an impressive physical specimen. He has good size for a tailback at almost 6'0 and around 200 pounds, but his biggest asset is most likely his speed. Unfortunately, however, Goode represents a complete uncertainty for us because he torn his ACL during the first practice session of 2007, and he missed the entire season. He looks good on paper, but until that translates into actual on-field success, no one knows just how good he is as a tailback.
Further muddying the waters for Goode is an uncertainty regarding the severity of his injury. We know that he tore an ACL, but we do not know what other damage was done in the process. Doctors specializing in sports medicine have come to create a distinction between ACL injuries and ACL Plus injuries. The former is a tear of the ACL with no further structural damage, but the latter is a tear of the ACL along with other structural damage to the knee (MCL, PCL, meniscus, etc.). Without getting too deep into the gory details, the gist is that an ACL injury can result in a relatively short recovery period, but an ACL Plus injury generally takes much longer. And of course, given the secrecy of medical records, we really have no reliable information on whether or not Goode merely tore his ACL, or if he has further structural damage to the knee.
I would not rule out Goode in 2007, mind you. He is certainly going to get some carries, and he may get a lot of them. Many argued, and I think validly so, that Goode was going to play a relatively large role in our offense in 2007 had he not been injured, and I think he will see the ball in 2008. But we just don't know how much at this point. If he is healthy, he could see it quite a bit, but if he is still recovering, his touches will be few and limited at best. Spring practice will give us some hints regarding his progress, but it may be a while before we know anything definitive on Mr. Goode.
When you put it all together, it is not hard to see why Saban is hitting the recruiting trails so hard in such of prep tailbacks.
Some people may like to think that we have a stable of very talented tailbacks, but that simply is not the case. Terry Grant is hurt at the moment, lacks the size to be an every-down back, does not have great speed, and needs to progress greatly as a pure runner. Glen Coffee is not a power back, lacks decisiveness in his running style, does not have an explosive short-yardage burst or top-end speed, and struggles with ball security. Roy Upchurch has a great deal of athletic ability, but has never stayed healthy enough to turn those skills into consistent production, and his health remains a concern. Demetrius Goode is an unknown because no one knows how serious his knee injury is, and even if he is healthy he is still a complete unknown because he has never played football at this level before.
Our tailback situation in 2008 is on very shaky ground at the moment. We will have somewhere in the neighborhood of seven tailbacks on scholarship, but I honestly do not know if we will have any who can step in and play right away. The current crop isn't exactly ideal, and while I like the incoming recruits, I'm not sure they will be able to come in and carry the running game as true freshmen.
What I do know is that we need a much better running game than what we saw in 2007. It has to be more consistent, particularly in short-yardage situations, and it needs to, well, exist against the better run defenses around, and that is something it certainly did not do in 2007. The running game is not the end-all, be-all that some make it out to be, but the point remains that it is very important to be able to run the football effectively, particularly at the end of games to run out the clock (think the 2007 LSU game), and particularly when your quarterback play is a bit shaky in its own right.
Unfortunately, though we will likely have seven tailbacks on scholarship this Fall, there are far more questions about our ability to effectively run the football than there are answers.