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Assessing Alabama's Running Back Duo

Alabama's running back tandem is one of the best in the country. Lets take a closer look at TJ Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, specifically in terms of how they compare to each other.

Andy Lyons

Once Alabama’s 2013 recruiting class was finalized, the first place most people looked to were the running backs – and for good reason. Derrick Henry, Altee Tenpenny, Alvin Kamara, and Tyren Jones were, easily, the best incoming group of running back recruits in the entire country. After seeing the success TJ Yeldon had as a freshman, most Alabama fans assumed that the same could be expected out of at least one of these backs, probably Derrick Henry, who holds the career high school rushing record. Stories of his nightly pushup routine left us excited, and immediate comparisons to Trent Richardson created what now appear to have been entirely unrealistic expectations. A consequence of this thinking meant that Kenyan Drake, who was forced into the third string running back spot last year because of injuries (but only played in garbage time), was all but forgotten. And a demotion to the scout team in practice leading up to the Virginia Tech game seemed to only reinforce the notion that Drake was not a significant part of Alabama’s 2013 plans.

Instead the exact opposite has happened. Kamara and Jones have yet to see the field, and I don’t expect that to change this season. Henry and Tenpenny have only played running back during garbage time, and their results have been inconsistent at best. But Drake has skyrocketed up the depth chart, past all of the freshman, past Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, and is now firmly entrenched in what at times can only be described as a timeshare with Yeldon. Recently some have suggested that the Yeldon/Drake duo is better than any Alabama running back duo in the Saban era, including Ingram/Richardson. Drake has certainly come a long way since the Virginia Tech week.

Drake’s promotion has been well deserved – he’s a very talented running back and he has performed extremely well so far this season. His straight-line speed and burst are his two most impressive qualities, and as the old saying goes, he’s a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Once he gets ahead of the defense he won’t be caught from behind. He’s also quite agile, frequently making defenders miss in one on one situations, all the while showcasing a variety of different moves. His production this year has been stellar as well. His yards per carry sits at 7.8, which, as many have been quick to point is, is superior to Yeldon’s, which is 6.3, albeit in far fewer carries. Some folks have even gone so far as to suggest that Drake is the top back on the team, deserving of the starting role.

I definitely understand the sentiment – clearly I think very highly of Drake and it’s impossible to argue with his stats. I think the issue isn’t that people are overrating Drake – I feel pretty much the same way you all do about his ability – but that they’re underrating Yeldon. Yeldon is special in a way that Drake just isn’t. The phrase ‘generational talent’ gets tossed around far more often that it should be, but in Yeldon’s case it’s an appropriate label. If you don’t believe me, pay really close attention to all of the games this Saturday. I think what you’ll find is that, as good as Drake is, there are other backs very similar to him. You’ll find backs that have the same speed, burst, and agility as Drake, all with the same electric ability in space. Don’t get me wrong, these players are not a dime a dozen, by any means. They’re far from common, and they’re all really, really good football players.

On the other hand, you’ll be lucky to find one player similar to Yeldon. I think he’s the best back in the country, but I wouldn’t object to anyone placing Todd Gurley above him. Either way he’s top two, and not only that, but it’s those two and then everyone else. He has all the physical tools of the top backs – the straight-line speed, the burst, the agility, and the strength (especially for someone his size). But it’s his other, non-physical attributes that separate him from the rest of the pack. It’s impossible to overrate his vision. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an underclassman (and, frankly, maybe even an upperclassman) that sees the field as well as Yeldon does. And it’s not just finding a crease, but it’s anticipating where a crease will open up even when it’s not there at the outset of the play. While so many running backs, including Drake, want to get up-field as quickly as possible, Yeldon is always patient, always hitting the right crease at the right moment. His feel for the game is just remarkable.

Nick Saban allows his true freshman to speak to reporters only once, during national signing day. When Yeldon spoke to reporters someone asked him who he plays like, and his answer was Adrian Peterson. Well maybe TJ should go into scouting after his playing days are over, because, after watching him play, I consider that to be a perfect comparison. The physical skills, the non-physical skills, and the playing style are all pretty much the same. Peterson’s body, today, is obviously a lot different than Yeldon’s, but that wasn’t the case in college – and by the time Yeldon is in his mid-20s I suspect his body will look similar to Peterson’s. Factoring in both ability at the college level and pro projections, Peterson is the best college back I’ve ever seen (using only the first category, it’s Reggie Bush). At this time next year I think Yeldon could be in that conversation and, according to some articles I’ve read, scouts agree. One draft expert in particular stated that, when all is said and done, Yeldon might receive the highest grade he has ever given to running back.

Now, about the yards per carry difference between Yeldon and Drake – there’s no right or wrong explanation here, both concerning why it exists and what (if anything) it means. My theory is that Drake’s approach is simply more conducive to success against sub par, undisciplined defenses, which is mostly what Alabama has seen this year. These sorts of defenses are typically too aggressive when flowing to the play-side, and often fail to contain both the edge and the backside. Drake is great at taking advantage of this – because it’s exactly what he looks for. After his long touchdown run against Arkansas he told reporters after the game that he decided to cut it back even before the snap, because of how the defense was aligned. Most of the time this works out fine, both because of Drake’s physical skills and the quality of the defenses he’s facing. But Yeldon’s far more polished approach, which also includes cutbacks, although less often, is conducive to success against even the best, most disciplined defenses. The simpler explanation also may just be that numbers cannot always be trusted to be indicative of ability in small samplings.

People have also mentioned that Yeldon has a fumbling issue. I don’t disagree that Yeldon could afford to improve his ball security, but his fumbling problem (52.5 touches per fumble) appears to be far less severe than Drake’s (28.5 touches per fumble).

Above all, we should be thrilled about Alabama’s running back situation, which, no matter how you slice it, includes two excellent running backs. But if I could only take one, I’m taking Yeldon, every single time.