Running Backs, Running Backs, Running Backs
We haven't been short on running backs in the great and mighty football history of the great and mighty Crimson Tide, especially if you want to start that history where we're starting it for this series, i.e., at the beginning of the Bear Bryant era. Seems like the Bear always had at least one star running back, and when we got to the wishbone ‘70s, he usually had three or four. Even during the Long Drought where Tide fans wandered through a 25-year desert that only had one national championship oasis stuck in the middle, we still had major studs like Bobby Humphrey and Shawn Alexander toting the rock. Now the Tide is so running-back fat that it seems the straightest road to becoming a first-round NFL running back draft pick runs straight through the Tide's bench, as there may have been more than one recent year where Bama had at least the top two running backs in the nation.
When us BOL contributor types (among which number I am still honored to be considered despite my utter lack of deserving it lately) bounced around the idea of putting up six candidates for each position, and I got running backs, my response was Easy Smeasy! We have a Big Six of Bama running backs to put up!
That's the same Big Six I'm putting up below, but there have been a lot more than six great ones playing their home games in Tuscaloosa (and/or Birmingham). Sorry, but guys like Mike Fracchia, Wilbur Jackson, Tony Nathan, Major Ogilvie, Gene Jelks, Siran Stacy and T.J. Yeldon are on the outside looking in - unless you vote them in as a walk-on, that is. . . .
First Rule: I GET TO DECIDE (which guys are nominated in this article). If y'all want a write-in, write him on in. And once you figure out how that works, let me know. If you can't figure it out, then maybe you should just get over your Gene Jelks crush and vote for one of the dag-blasted nominees, y'all.
- Top 4 running backs will move on to the most cataclysmic event in the history of the universe, the final vote.
- The eternal question: NFL career or college only? Roll your own answer to that one, bros. Speaking only for myself (translation: if you've got a brain in your head), it's all about the college career, BUT (and that's a mighty big but), considering how difficult it is to compare a guy playing on one college team with that team's line against that team's schedule to another guy's team/line/schedule, it's really hard to ignore those NFL results.
- In the beginning there was a state of Alabama, and football was void. Then Mama Called (cue the Glorious Angel Choir). Y'all can pick guys from after that. It's a rool.
- Since we're stuck with pictures we have something called "Rights" to, and since pictures like that don't delve too far back into history (something like 2009 is considered ancient), y'all just gone have to imagine these guys. OK, part of that is arbitrary, but it sez right here that if I ain't got no pitchers of Johnny Musso, then I ain't got no pitchers of Eddie Lacy, either. (#oopswazaspoiler)
That said, here's the Big Six, in alphabootycal order. Drum roll, please!
Do you want to extrapolate what a great NFL career Eddie Lacy will have if he keeps getting better every year for 10 years? Or would you like to theorize on how great Bobby Humphrey might've been without the stupid holdouts and the criminal recordizing?
If you don't, and you want to stick with the facts, Shaun Alexander is by far the greatest NFL running back Alabama has produced. In his eight-year career, he rushed for 9,429 yards and 100 TDs, tacking on another 1,511 yards and 12 TDs through the air. In 2005, he was NFL MVP and set a (short-lived) league record with 27 TDs.
With the Tide, Alexander rushed for 3,565 yards and 4.9 YPC average over 4 years, with 41 rushing TDs and 8 receiving TDs. He was an All-American and SEC player of the year in 1999, when he finished 7th in Heisman voting, but played as a backup for two years, even after rushing for 291 yards and 4 touchdowns as a freshman against LSU. Although Alexander only played about half of that game, his 291 yards in a game remains the school record.
Bama was 31-18 in the seasons Alexander played, with one SEC championship.
Bobby Humphrey's road has led from hawking sodas at Bama games as a boy to becoming the team's biggest star to disgrace as an ex-felon to a comeback story/Arena Football League head coaching position to his current position as the proud father of a fledgling Tider with a (hopefully) big future. Humphrey rushed for 3,420 yards and a 5.6 YPC average with the Tide and scored 33 TDs on the ground and 7 in the air. Bobby was a 2-time All-American who was on track to be a 3-timer before his senior season was cut short 2 games in by a broken foot. Humphrey.
Humphrey's NFL career was just as mercurial. He rambled for 1,151 yards as a Bronco rookie and would have been ROTY if this guy named Barry Sanders hadn't been starting out the same year, and was leading the league in rushing his sophomore season when he sprained his ankle and missed the last two weeks, still finishing with over 1200 yards. But Humphrey held out until week 14 his third season, and his career never recovered. He would only play two more undistinguished years in the League, after which he held out again. The second holdout "helped" him just as much as the first: he never played again.
Bama was 35-13-1 in the seasons Humphrey played, and did not win a championship. #26 played in the Bill Curry era, which you may not think of as the richest of days for Alabama football, but that doesn't keep him from being a very serious candidate in this poll.
Before Mark Ingram came around, us Bama fans had a really good whine about how those damyankee sportswriters had never given a Heisman to any player from the Greatest Football Program Of All Time: but aren't you glad we have a Heisman Trophy in the Bryant Museum, instead? A robust full-bodied whine is all well and good, but real cheese is even better.
Ingram was in on the ground floor of the Saban era, missing only that forgettable 2007 transition year and instead starting right out as the 2nd-string tailback on a genuine contender. In his three years with the Tide, Ingram rushed for 3,261 yards with a 5.7 YPC average, scored 42 rushing TDs and 4 receiving TDs for a Bama record 46 total. Ingram was an all-around back who could block and catch and spent most of his career seemingly without any reason to know the meaning of the word "fumble." In his first year as a starter, he racked up 1,658 yards on the ground and another 334 in the air to lead the Tide to the national championship promised land. Ingram earned that Heisman on a memorable 4th-quarter drive in a close game against South Carolina: with the Tide passing game stymied behind a completely ineffective Greg McElroy, Ingram carried on every play of a six-play, 68-yard TD drive that turned a shaky 13-6 lead into a 20-6 win.
His NFL career has been less successful, but Ingram showed some signs of development in 2013, his 3rd year in the League. For his career, he has 1,462 yards rushing, a 4.1 YPC average, and has scored 11 TDs, all on the ground. The Saints did not pick up Ingram's 4th-year option, so he will be a free agent after 2014, and his name has emerged in several trade rumors.
Bama was 36-5 while Ingram was in town, with one SEC championship and one natty.
How good would Eddie Lacy have been if he been healthy throughout his Alabama career? His career totals of 2,402 yards rushing and 32 TDs (30 ground, 2 air) can't keep up with the rest of the totals in this group, but his career average of 6.8 yards per carry is the best of any of them, and truth be told it's a lot higher than 6.8 if you only count the games where Lacy was at least mostly healthy. When Lacy was a third-stringer behind Ingram and Trent Richardson his freshman year, Bama may have had the three best running backs in the nation. Circle Button's unique talents were on full display in his last game as a Tider as he spun through, threw down and stomped on the gold-helmed South Benders in perhaps the most emotionally satisfying Bama game these eyes have witnessed.
Lacy started his NFL career in style, rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 TDs after a slow start that saw him rush for only 51 yards in the first three games. Lacy got stronger as the season went on even though the decrepit Packers O provided him virtually no help after Aaron Rodgers went down early in the Packers eighth game. Lacy was key to the Packers making the playoffs in 2013 and figures to be a pre-season fantasy favorite in 2014.
Bama was 35-5 while Lacy played, with one SEC championship and two big fat natties.
Even though two of the original Italian Stallion's three years as a Tide starter happened to be the two down years in the middle of the fabulous 25-year Bear Bryant run, the Tide returned to glory his senior year and, perhaps as a result, Musso may be the most revered player of the entire Bryant era among Bama fans. Musso was tough and technically proficient, neither particularly big, particularly fast nor particularly strong: just particularly good. Like Ingram, he was an all-around player, a punishing blocker and one of the Tide's leading receivers during his era. He rushed for 2,741 yards and a 4.8 YPC average at Bama, with 34 ground TDs and 4 through the air, and had his greatest game at the perfect time, racking up 167 yards and 2 TDs in a 31-7 Iron Bowl win that was the only time in recent memory that both Alabama and Auburn came into the game with perfect records.
For reasons that remain obscure, Musso decided to try his luck in the Canadian Football League rather than the NFL. He played three years in the CFL with relative success, followed by one year in the USFL, and finally, a four-year stint as Walter Payton's backup with da Bears. Passing Payton would probably have been a bridge too far in any case, but it didn't help that he was slowed by knee injuries.
Bama was 22-12-1 during Musso's three years, and won an SEC championship.
That amazing run against Arkansas as a freshman and the limp-leg move against the helpless Ole Miss DB aside, perhaps the most enduring memories of Trent Richardson as a Tider came as or after the whistle blew, when Trent just would not go down no matter how many guys on the other team stacked up against him. If you hit him low while he was moving you could make him fall, but otherwise the only way to get him off his feet was to physically lift him up in the air - just pushing wouldn't do it, even if it was the whole team pushing.
Even though he only started for one season, Richardson rushed for 3,130 yards and a 5.8 YPC average with the Tide, racking up 35 rushing TDs and 7 more through the air. Trent was another triple-threat back who could block and catch nearly as well as he could run, a reliable short-yardage guy with home run potential.
Unfortunately, Richardson has been one of the biggest draft busts of the last few years. Richardson was drafted #3 by the Browns in 2012, the highest-drafted running back since Reggie Bush went #2 in 2006, but the Browns dumped him for a first-round draft pick two games into his second season, and word on the street is that they took the Colts for a ride. Richardson has had no shortage of opportunities, with 455 carries in his two years, but it's being kind to call his 3.3 YPC average mediocre, and his 7.9 yards per reception isn't much better.