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Previewing the Crimson Tide: Running Backs

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After an offseason of upheaval, where do the RBs stand going into 2015?

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s August, yall. What does that mean? We get to talk about Alabama football in earnest again, not just in that wistful sort of way that characterizes such conversations in the depths of the offseason. Today we’re tackling every gump’s favorite topic — running the dang football![1] Specifically, we’re going to talk running backs. For the fifth time since Coach Saban took over the Tide program we’ve bid farewell to a starter, as the ludicrously underappreciated T.J. Yeldon has departed the Capstone to ply his trade in the NFL. After an offseason filled with attrition from the full range of maladies — injury, transfer, qualifications issues, and plain ol’ knuckleheadedness[2] — the once-vaunted Tide backfield depth is now but a shell of its former self. Still, there’s quite a bit to like here, starting with the team's most famous farming enthusiast (and the leading rusher from last season).

1 | MAKE THEIR ASSES QUIT, LANE.

2 | Scarbrough, Tenpenny, Flowers, and — sigh — Tyren Jones, in order.

The Main Man

Derrick Henry

Yes, you read that correctly. Henry actually tipped Yeldon[3] to lead the team in rushing on the year after a strong performance in the Sugar Bowl, tallying 990 yards on just 172 carries with 11 TDs. High school football’s all-time leading rusher, Henry started his career third on the depth chart, but served as the main backup to Yeldon last year and is the unquestioned starter going into 2015. One of the more physically impressive running backs you’re ever going to see at 6’3” and 242 pounds, Henry’s work ethic is legendary, and he is consistently cited for his leadership and hard work by the coaching staff. Henry is shockingly fast for someone of his size, and is a load to bring down in the open field. Effective catching passes out of the backfield as well, Henry notched a modest five receptions on the year, but turned those into a whopping 133 yards and two touchdowns.

3 | Who logged "only" 979 yards after back-to-back 1000 yard efforts.

Last season the most effective way to deal with Henry was, surprisingly enough, to meet him right at the line of scrimmage, as the junior’s top-heavy build and somewhat suspect footwork lead to issues running in traffic. However, the word is Henry leveraged that work ethic this offseason to improve his feet and add lower body mass,[4] which should help tremendously in his new role as the feature back. All signs point toward a big season for the new #2 in what may be his last year at the Capstone.

4 | I like pizza for this, but something tells me Henry went the weightroom route. To each his own.

The Backups

Kenyan Drake

Part of the same recruiting class as Yeldon, Drake has shown flashes of greatness throughout his time at the Capstone without ever quite seeming to put it all together. The arrival of Lane Kiffin to Tuscaloosa pointed to a slight role change for the 6’1”, 210 pound Drake, as the early games of last season saw the versatile back departing the backfield to line up as a receiver more frequently than in prior years, and the results were beyond promising — just five catches, but 159 yards and two touchdowns, including a gorgeous 87 yard de-pantsing of the Florida secondary on the first play of that game. Actually, let’s watch that again:[5]

5 | “Any opportunity to troll Florida is an opportunity worth taking” - SaxonRBR

So good.

Sadly, the next game saw the end of Drake’s season after just 22 carries, as a gruesome lower leg injury cost him the remainder of the year. Despite some current hamstring woes, however, the senior appears to have fully recovered, and has been back practicing with the team for some time now. Long the most explosive option out of the backfield for the Tide, Drake looks to bring his blend of acceleration, top-end speed, vision, and elusiveness[6] to bear as the main backup to Henry, in what will surely resemble more of a timeshare as in seasons past.

6 | And impeccable ball security, right Mr. Drake? Right!

Damien Harris

Mark Ingram 2.0 is here, and so far he has been as advertised. Harris committed to the Tide in January, spurning Ohio State and in-state favorite Kentucky, arriving at the end of the summer and immediately finding himself third on the depth chart. Part of that is due to the aforementioned attrition to said depth chart, but the unanimous five star recruit is hardly lacking on talent. The 5’11”, 205 pound Harris was quite productive in his high school career, compiling 6,748 yards and 113 touchdowns in four years at Berea’s (KY) Madison Southern. Harris is noted for his durability and a bruising style reminiscent of Ingram’s, but possesses a bit better speed than Alabama’s lone Heisman winner, as he’s been clocked as low as 4.4 seconds in the 40 yard dash. If that didn’t sound enticing enough, our own btbama22 was at Fan Day last weekend, noting that ”[Harris] has the best footwork of the running backs already, and has all the moves”.

Just to summarize — Mark Ingram, but faster and possibly shiftier?

In all seriousness, hopefully we see little of Harris in 2015, as that would indicate an injury to Henry or Drake, and that is the last thing the Tide needs at this stage. Look for Harris to be the first option in mop-up duty this season, with an eye toward taking the top spot in 2016.

The Reserves

Derrick Gore

If you are like me, and you spent the offseason seeing just how much barbecue one person can make[7] instead of diligently following the minutiae of summer recruiting, you might not have had any idea this person existed, let alone that he was now fourth on the depth chart. A late addition to the Tide, the 5’11”, 210 pound Gore originally suited up for Nottingham High School in Syracuse, NY, but academic qualification issues steered him from the major schools toward a year at prep school before finally ending up at JUCO power Coffeyville CC (KS) in 2014, where a knee injury resulted in Gore sitting out the season. After an unofficial visit to Tuscaloosa in late July, Gore walked on to the Tide just in time for fall camp — he is classified as a true sophomore and has four years to play three at the Capstone.

7 | Answer: A Lot. I also recommend barbecue for adding body mass.

As far as what he can do? Not terribly sure, as “under the radar” is an apt description for Gore. He tallied over 2000 all-purpose yards in his senior year while leading Nottingham to a sectional title in New York’s Class A, and all of that sounds great! I’m also told he enjoys contact. In lieu of a more detailed breakdown of his skills… have some film![8]

8 | Note he is 20 pounds heavier now. Limited JUCO footage here.

Ronnie Clark

Originally recruited as a safety, Clark found his way to the running backs last season before tearing his Achilles in October and missing the rest of the year. Fully recovered, Clark is still working with the running backs, competing for backup duty with Harris and Gore. A physical specimen, Clark’s 6’2”, 228 pound frame would look out of place in the backfield if not for the presence of the monstrous Henry, and he runs with the sort of bruising style you’d expect out of such a large back. Clark also flashed some nice hands during the A-Day game, notching 7 receptions for 40 yards. While he’s looked good so far, it’s unlikely we see much of Clark in 2015.

Xavian Marks

Like Gore, Marks is a recent addition to the roster after signing in late July, but with much more fanfare than Gore. The reason is probably the most salient characteristic of his game — outrageous speed. Originally committed to New Mexico State[9], Marks garnered the attention of Crimson Tide track after running a 10.39 100m at the Texas 5-A state meet, good for the second-fastest time at the event. As our fearless leader noted back in July, that’s Olympic-type stuff for a high school kid. The downside, and the likely reason for his modest three star rating, is his size — just 5’8” and 160 pounds. While in the competition for the third spot in the running back rotation, Marks (along with several others) has seen work returning kicks, and personally that feels like his best shot at contributing to the Tide down the road.

9 | Spurning, among others, Mississippi State. What a world!

Oh Yeah, That Guy

Bo Scarbrough

Versatility was the name of the game with Scarbrough, as his size (6’2”, 240 pounds), speed, and polished skillset led to his use all over the field as a blocker, runner, and slot receiver, and success worthy of a five star rating from your recruiting service of choice. “Was” is the important word in that sentence, as Scarbrough has encountered a disheartening series of roadblocks along his path to the roster. After a somewhat snakebitten high school career, replete with promise but saddled with injuries, Scarbrough was slotted in as a 2014 recruit, but failed to qualify academically and missed last season. After arriving in time for Sugar Bowl prep and with a strong start to the spring, Scarbrough tore an ACL in the first spring scrimmage, putting his debut season in jeopardy. If that wasn’t enough, he’s been suspended for the first four games of the year for an “NCAA thing” related to “amateurism,” three words no one wants to hear in conjunction with a football player, particularly one playing for the Tide. Word is that Scarbrough is ahead of schedule on his rehab, but experience suggests it takes a year to fully recover from such an injury. Technically he will be available later this season, but realistically it will be 2016 before he sees the field for the Tide.

The Rest

Buddy Pell and Lawrence Erekosima are still kicking around as far as can be determined, despite no longer appearing on the official roster. With all due respect to Pell’s brief garbage time exploits last season, you shouldn’t expect to hear either of these names this season.

Fullbacks, you say? Something about replacing Jalston Fowler? First of all, one does not simply replace Jalston Fowler. Nudie may have been even more underrated than Yeldon, given all of the things he was capable of doing for the offense. Regardless, Le’Ron’s[10] spiritual successor has moved on, and in his place is Michael Nysewander, albeit essentially by default. Dakota Ball has been bandied about as an alternative, but neither option is particularly exciting. The idea of Scarbrough in this spot was tantalizing given his vaunted athleticism and supreme versatility, but alas, it is not to be.

10 | As in McClain, who remains my favorite former Tide player, despite one heck of a charge from Blake Sims.

ROLL TIDE