As has been the case in many years past, the 2015 incarnation of the Alabama Crimson Tide depended heavily on the running game to bludgeon opponents into submission. Sure, there was the look and feel of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's West Coast-flavored offense: the multiple looks in the passing game, plenty of run-pass option, the deep threat with a speedy, elite receiver. But the trademark of Alabama's championship-winning offense in the previous campaign was the punishing running of Derrick Henry behind Alabama's excellent offensive line.
Flash forward to this spring...as expected, Henry elected to enter the NFL, along with senior tailback colleague and speedster Kenyan Drake. Finding a replacement for two nearly irreplaceable talents is a tough task, especially when compounded by the fact that the Tide will also be breaking in its third new quarterback in as many seasons this spring. The lack of an experienced starter under center will once again put the yoke on Alabama's running backs and offensive line to carry the offense early, only this year (unlike in the previous two campaigns), the running back ranks likewise lack veteran leadership.
That said, it will be critical for Alabama's coaching staff to develop a dependable tandem of backs from among the rather unseasoned roster. Because riding Henry as its workhorse paid dividends in 2016, Alabama moved away from its patented 60/40 split of carries between a co-starter tandem of backs ala Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson or Richardson-Eddie Lacy or Lacy-T.J. Yeldon. However, fans may see that winning equation return as the two lead horses in the Tide's stable appear to be sophomores Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris.
But what does the Tide have outside of those two apparent contenders for the starting role? In a word, the Tide has question marks, as well as a diverse group of players who differ dramatically from the prototypical Tide running backs of yore. Let's take a closer look...
There's no question the favorite for the starting running back role on the 2016 Tide team will be the hulking speedster Scarbrough. From his early prep days as the workhorse of the Tuscaloosa County High School offense, Bama supporters have drooled over Scarbrough's raw size and athleticism. Essentially a linebacker with running back speed, agility and instincts, Scarbrough is easily one of the most versatile athletes the Tide has fielded since the days of David Palmer...though admittedly, there is an almost ridiculous size differential in that comparison.
Scarbrough, like Henry, is built on the frame of a linebacker at 6-2, 240 pounds of pure aggression. He's only a sophomore, but one can already see the development he's undergone beneath the weight room tutelage of Scott Cochran, as in a crowd, he is physically indistinguishable from the Tide's defensive linemen.
In limited action last year after recovering from a serious knee injury in the spring of 2015, Scarbrough showed flashes of what fans can expect from him in future campaigns. Against Michigan State in the College Football Playoffs, he got several garbage time carries and used those opportunities to brutalize an already-whipped Spartan defense. When employed as a fourth-quarter bludgeon late in the season against lesser opponents, fans caught a glimpse of his monster truck-style running and raw physical prowess.
Though physically Scarbrough is certainly a Henry doppelganger, he may actually be the more athletic of the two players (if one can conceive of such a thing). Henry had great open field speed, and was clocked at around 4.5 in the 40 at the NFL Combine this spring. Scarbrough, however, has routinely been clocked in the 4.4 range in the 40 since his days at IMG Academy in Florida. Though that's admittedly only a slight difference in speed, the thought of a man the size of Scarbrough churning downfield at that velocity should be terrifying for opposing defenses. Add into the equation that the back does not seem to be plagued with the balance and stride issues that troubled Henry as a younger player, and Alabama will appear to be in good shape in the backfield with Scarbrough getting extensive carries.
Scarbrough may also end up being a better receiving target than Henry, though truthfully Henry was used sparingly in that regard in Kiffin's offense. Generally, big, banging, physical tailbacks are not thought of as threats in the passing game. However, Scarbrough is so athletic that before being injured in the spring of 2015, Coach Nick Saban was giving him reps with the receiving corps, and he commented that Scarbrough was certainly talented enough to contribute at the position if needed.
A 6-2, 240 pound running back with 4.4 speed and wide receiver hands? Tide fans won't soon forget about the legendary exploits of Henry at the Capstone, but with measurables like those, Scarbrough may be the next Heisman Trophy winner in Saban's Alabama tenure.
(See Bo in action here.)
Is he Drake-ish...or something else?
As if Scarbrough wasn't enough, the Tide also has another five-star sophomore in the running for a role in the starting tandem with Damien Harris. Harris, who saw a good bit of mop-up playing time in 2015 in the third-string role behind Henry and Drake (47 carries for 157 yards, 3.4 yards per carry), proved his worth as a gritty runner with solid instincts and good hands out of the backfield.
While many would automatically cast Harris into the Drake role (given Scarbrough's obvious role as the heir apparent to Henry), there is little similarity between the two players. The younger back has not yet demonstrated the explosiveness of the departed Tide senior, and there is little to compare between the two at this point. In limited action, Harris' running style is somewhat reminiscent of former back T.J. Yeldon, though a larger sample size is needed before making such a lofty comparison at anything but a surface level.
Harris has apparently become more chiseled since his freshman campaign, and he has good size at 5-11 and 205 pounds. Athletic in his own right, Harris runs with good balance and has shown solid instincts for a young back in hitting his holes (though he has work to do in decisiveness and confidence in his line.) He squares his shoulders well and accepts contact with gusto, even though he is not seen as the more physical of the Tide's two top prospective backs.
Like Scarbrough, Harris is also a viable option as a receiver out of the backfield. He has enough shiftiness at his size to have contributed heavily in the return game for Alabama in 2015, and with Kiffin's offensive tendency to get athletic playmakers in space, Harris could contribute to the Tide's offense in a way not dissimilar from the way Drake was used in the screen game in previous seasons.
While not as physically imposing as Scarbrough, Harris is a tremendous athlete with great upside. Ranked as a consensus five-star running back coming out of the state of Kentucky in the Class of 2015, his signing was a coup for the Tide. After contributing from the shadows last season, Harris will have a chance in 2016 to establish himself as the next in a long line of athletic, elite backs to come through the Capstone in the last decade.
(Since Harris' college carries have been limited, here's a sampling of his prep work.)
While Scarbrough and Harris should represent the starting tandem for the Tide this season (barring injury), there is a great deal of mystery about the role players behind them on the (non-existent) depth chart.
Listed on the current roster are the likes of "tiny-but-awesome" junior Lawrence Erekosima (5-7, 175 pounds), who saw some time as a stand-in during the Tide's injury littered 2014 spring campaign. That spring, Erekosima turned a few heads with his speed and elusiveness, though it's questionable whether or not he could stand up to the constant beating a running back takes in the SEC. That said, the shifty back could contribute on special teams or in situational circumstances, though one must believe that if he hasn't earned much playing time to date that such a role may not be in the cards for the South Carolinian.
The current roster member most likely to see time as the Tide's third-stringer is Xavian Marks, one half of the Marks Brothers duo (WR Torin being the other half). Xavian Marks is another back who breaks with the Tide's tradition of lining up behemoths in the back field, as at 5-8, 160 pounds, he would literally disappear amongst the Tide's offensive linemen (not that that would be a bad thing at times). However, what Marks may lack in size, he more than makes up for with world-class speed, as he is not only a football player, but a scholarship track athlete as well. The redshirt freshman runs a 10.3 100 meters, which for non-track savvy folks out there, is blazingly fast. In his senior campaign as a high schooler, he posted 1523 yards and 18 touchdowns, and he has enough speed to make him an interesting option in the race to replace Drake's elusiveness. (To see Marks in action, click here.) Marks could also contribute on special teams, where his size, speed and athleticism could make him an exciting option in the return game.
Junior walk-on Derrick Gore (5-11, 210 pounds) and sophomore Avery Reid (6-0, 190 pounds) are listed at running back on the roster, but there is little known about the two. Neither were top-flight signees in their respective recruiting cycles, and will probably not realistically be in the running for the third-string role this fall.
Newcomers to watch for in the fall
While the above-mentioned backs will battle for playing time this spring, Alabama may have two intriguing options joining the team later this summer in signees B.J. Emmons (5-10, 232 pounds) and Josh Jacobs (5-11, 200 pounds). Emmons apparently still has work to do in the classroom to qualify and is by no stretch a sure thing to make the Tide's fall roster, but Jacobs should be good to go come August. While Emmons was the second ranked running back in his class, Jacobs was only rated a three-star and was lightly recruited until posting ridiculous numbers in his senior season (2704 yards, 36 TDs, 15.1 yards per carry.) Since then, Jacobs' stock soared, and he is has the talent to contribute as early as this year. Both players have nice size for the position, and Jacobs has the speed and elusiveness to contribute as a returner, running back and receiver.
Though Scarbrough and Harris appear to be locks for the top two slots in the Tide backfield, it will be interesting to see how the competition for the third-string role shakes out this spring. If none of the aforementioned players currently on campus can seize the opportunity this spring, then the chance for Emmons (if he qualifies) or Jacobs to get meaningful looks as true freshman increase exponentially.