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Meet the New Guys: Running Backs

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With the stability of Damien Harris over the last three years, who will be groomed to carry the ball in the upcoming seasons?

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we kicked off the post-NSD coverage with a piece breaking down Alabama’s two new quarterbacks on the roster. This week, we move on to the guys that will make up the #RTDB segment of the offense for years to come.

I was going to combine the running backs with the receivers and tight ends since the Tide went a little light on the pass catchers this year, but I wound up getting more wordy than I intended, so I’ll be breaking it up into two pieces.

As usual, I will be referring to SPARQ, an analytical tool used to quantify and compare a player’s athleticism.

I pull all my rankings from the 247Composite, and all heights, weights, and athletic tests are from ESPN, since they pull data from the Opening combines. However, most of the players have changed somewhat in their weight since participation in these combines last summer, so their college-arrival size may be much different. I just keep that old weight because it shows what size the player was when he ran that 40-yard dash.

With no further disclaimers, let’s jump into it:


Keilan Robinson

Keilan Robinson was once listed as an “all-purpose back,” which is football-speak for talking about an undersized ball-carrier that’s much better at making people miss than running straight into the heart of a defense. As his senior year went on, though, 247 eventually swapped him over to a more traditional “running back” position.

At 5’10”, 186, he’s not the biggest guy around. If he can add 15 pounds though, 200 would be quite dense for someone only 5’10”, and the lower center of gravity would give him a strength advantage over bigger players.

He only participated in the vertical jump and powerball tests for Nike, so we have no idea what his SPARQ score would be. He wasn’t particularly impressive in either of the two tests he did get numbers for, but neither were bad, either. All in all, he’s likely a similar comp athletically to Slade Bolden and Josh Jacobs in their final year of high school ball.

Pros

As you’d expect from a highly-rated running backs that’s under 190 pounds, Robinson is exceptionally shifty and really tough for defenders to get their hands on. In the open field, the first defender will never manage to tackle him.

Robinson runs with fast, choppy steps that let him make 90-degrees changes in direction without so much as slowing down to telegraph he’s about to go another direction. It also means that he keeps his balance really well in high traffic areas. Despite his small stature, it can be really difficult for defenders to bring him down with arm or ankle tackles as he just keeps chugging away and twisting around to keep his feet beneath his body. He’s also quite adept at managing to slip around and through gang tackles to dive forward for an extra yard or two. Defenders just can’t manage to ever get a square tackle on him.

He is a patient runner in the backfield, and can pick his way through the line of scrimmage while running just behind a blocker the whole way. He does a good job at crossing back and forth behind blockers in the open field to get defenders tripped up as well. He’s also got a really nice hesi-step in the backfield that can really make an over aggressive defense pay as he slips past a free blitzer and then bolts through the same hole that the defender just came through.

He’s also an accomplished receiver and can be a mismatch out of the backfield. He’s used frequently in swings and screens, but then will turn a swing into an out-n-up that leaves a linebacker trying to cover him in the flats in the dust. He’s by no means a wide receiver, but does a pretty good job of adjusting to imperfectly thrown balls and doesn’t lose his concentration with defenders all around him.

Cons

Most of the issues in his game have to do with his size— something he’ll never be able to overcome, only work around and specialize in different ways. Robinson will never be a big, bruising back that can bully his way straight into a pile of defenders and push his way forward for a first down. He’s got good enough balance to slip through a lot of arm tackles and is adept at avoiding good hits, but if a tackler manages to get a clean grab on him, he usually goes down without too much fight.

Though generally a patient runner with good vision, he’s still a little too quick to bail outside if the line of scrimmage looks to crowded. It’s something that works over and over again for him in high school because he’s just faster than everyone else, but will be more of an issue in college against SEC defenses.

He’s a willing pass blocker, but usually gets walked backwards when blocking head on. Some of that is, again, just a size issue, but he also tries to block up too high and usually is late getting his arms up, wrapping the defender in bear hug that will either get him beat or called for holding.

Prediction

With Josh Jacobs moving on to the NFL, there will be a three way battle between Robinson, Slade Bolden, and Jerome Ford for the smaller, receiving threat running back to get some playing time in some formations behind the bigger Najee Harris and Brian Robinson. I ultimately think that Keilan has a higher upside than both Bolden and Ford, but will be lacking a year of experience and training in a college strength and conditioning program.

So we see him a couple of time in mop up duty, and maybe an occasional appearance on special teams, but he winds up redshirting in year 1.


Trey Sanders

Hailing from the football factory that is IMG Academy, Trey Sanders was one of Alabama’s first commits to the class well over a year ago, and was considered from early on to be a front runner for the #1 overall recruit. He wound up not quite being #1, but the 6th-best player in all of high school football is a pretty good consolation prize.

At 6’0” 216, he’s the prototypical size of a perfectly balanced running back who can pound the ball up the middle of the line or break someone’s ankles and race down the sideline. He posted excellent scores in both the powerball toss and vertical jump, indicating elite explosiveness that he can convert into power when facing defenders head-on. His 40-yard dash and 20-yard shuttle weren’t elite scores, but were definitely nothing to be ashamed of either.

For some reason, he didn’t post his SPARQ score anywhere that I can find. However, since I have all 5 variables, I have a rough estimate of what his SPARQ score actually is from some statistical regression work I did. He would likely be a shade under 120 SPARQ, which is a 1.35 Z-score, or a 90th percentile athlete.

Pros

As a disclaimer, this is the #1 running back in the nation and a top 10 overall recruit. Most of what I’m about to say is going to be glowingly positive and lacking my normal dose of doubt and skepticism.

The first thing you’ll notice about Sanders is how every defender who tries to tackle him just ends up looking spectacularly embarrassed. He doesn’t just make guys miss— he hurts their pride and breaks their souls while doing it. He gets really low while juking and utilizes head fakes really well, often sending defenders sprawling at the very last second. He can hop-step in the backfield immediately after taking a hand off to make a blitzer miss, or he can spin out of what should have been a sure tackle at the sidelines.

He’s also just a load to bring down. At nearly 220 pounds, Sanders can drag an entire pile forward while continuing to hop along. Defenders diving at his legs usually just bounce off and he uses a stiff arm really well to keep someone running up beside him from tripping him up.

He also has elite acceleration and can plant his foot and be at top speed before many defenders have time to react. He’s especially useful in a zone blocking scheme as he excels at moving slowly up to the line of scrimmage before making a cut and blasting his way up field. He has a knack for feeling out cutback lanes after convincing the defense to follow him in one direction.

As an IMG graduate, you can expect that he’s schooled up in doing a lot of the little things well. When carrying the ball, he’s comfortable with switching the ball to his outside hand without ever breaking stride (a lot of running backs even at the pro level really struggle with this, and it makes them a fumble hazard).

Though I can’t speak for his blitz pick-up decision making, he keeps his feet moving and initiates contact with an inside shove to the chest of the defender when pass protecting. It’s great technique for a running back and will give him a leg up in an area that has many Nick Saban running backs on the bench as freshmen.

He’s also a comfortable and natural receiver both in the screen game and downfield, so he can truly be an every down back for years to come.

Cons

Though a fast enough running back, he doesn’t have the elite breakaway speed that can just flat-out outrun people to the corner and make good angles turn into bad angles. Alabama hasn’t really had a running back with that kind of speed since Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, so Sanders fits in with the mold of the Tide’s running backs the last three years. He also has problems with slowing down and changing directions once he hits top speed. While still moving slowly near the line of scrimmage, he can make anyone miss, but is not quite so elusive once he breaks into the secondary on a long sprint.

He also has a little bit of a bad tendency to choose to make a couple of defenders miss rather than doubling back and finding a new lane. That is most likely just a lot of confidence in his abilities, but might also indicate some issues with vision at a college level.

Prediction

It’s hard not to watch Trey Sanders without being reminded a lot of Trent Richardson as a high school recruit and freshman at Alabama. They’re both powerful backs with incredible balance and explosiveness that make them nearly impossible to tackle. Richardson continued to bulk up as his college career went on, and you know how his NFL career went.

With the slow change of Nick Saban’s offense over the years, I would guess that Sanders will try to stay at or below the 220 range. With more focus on being a receiving threat out of the backfield and being able to find cutbacks, I don’t think Saban will want to turn him into a short-yardage bowling ball.

He’ll be too talented and too college-ready to keep off the field as a freshman. Najee Harris will be the Tide’s top rusher, but I expect Sanders to really challenge Brian Robinson as the #2 back. He and Robinson will have a fairly even split of carries early in the season, but Sanders eventually takes over as the clear-cut back-up to Harris.