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The All-Saban Underappreciated Team: Running Backs

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For as good as they were, this trio wasn’t appreciated nearly enough.

All State Sugar Bowl - Alabama v Ohio State
Hi, haters!
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

How do you pick “underappreciated players” at a position that has won two Heismans, two Doak Walkers, a Maxwell Award, and fielded five All-Americans in just a dozen years?

Pretty easy, as it turns out — either through the fandom’s demands for perfection, the passage of time, or simply a crowded backfield, our trio never quite got the love they should have.

RB1, Damien Harris

Damien Harris was supposed to step on the practice field in Tuscaloosa a be an instant star. The 5’11”, 215-pound bowling ball out of Kentucky was the No. 1 overall back in the 2015 NSD Class, and he was the No. 8 player nationally. The Parade All-American and Mr. Kentucky in Football was more than just a dynamic athlete — he was also a scholar, finishing as a salutatorian at his high school. No wonder practically every school of note offered him.

But, it turns out the SEC is a bit of a tougher hill to climb than plowing over folks in Kentucky ball. Harris’ freshman season represented — and let’s be charitable here — a definite learning curve. Playing behind workhorse Derrick Henry, when Harris did see the field he looked lost a lot of time. He looked tentative. Worse, he looked slow — he averaged under 4 yards a rush and under 4 yards a catch. Nothing about that freshman campaign was particularly memorable. But, it certainly motivated Damien.

When 2016 rolled around, we got a glimpse at most of his high school promise fulfilled. Damien thrived in the read-option scheme Kiffin installed for Jalen Hurts. He averaged north of 7 yards a carry, became more explosive, was a monster blocking, and he began to show flashes of his skills in the passing game. Harris finished the season as the Tide’s leading rusher. He only had two rushing scores, but when you’re sharing a backfield with Fantasy Touchdown Vulture Bo Scarbrough, that’s bound to happen.

But 2017 was when it all rounded into form. All of the traits that he had shown in 2016 were still there, but improved — and Harris even added a new weapon in his arsenal: deceptive open-field speed that came with ditching the honey buns he loves so much. Again, he was the Tide’s leading rusher.

Surprisingly, Damien stuck around in 2018 for his senior season, despite having nothing left to prove. But that veteran leadership was needed on a team stacked full of promising sophomores and defensive liabilities. You know the drill by now: in 2018 he was again the team’s leading rusher.

For his career, Harris finished with 3070 yards rushing, 23 rushing touchdowns, and an Alabama-record 6.4 yards per carry. He also added another 52 grabs for 407 yards and 2 more touchdowns — every time Damien touched the ball, he netted 6.6 yards per touch, and impressively did so on some of the most wildly divergent Alabama offenses of the past few decades.

For all that, Harris never collected much individual hardware — just one lonely second-team All-SEC honor in 2018. But, this ultimate team-first guy left with an even bigger trophy case for that effort: two national titles, three SEC titles and four College Football Playoff appearances.

Hopefully as the years go by, one of the most thoughtful, outspoken and cerebral Alabama players of recent vintage will be appreciated far more than he was throughout his career.

RB2, T.J. Yeldon

Full-throated defense time.

Let’s get this out of the way — yes, TJ Yeldon fumbled. Quite a bit, actually.

He coughed it up 10 times in college, losing 8 of them. They were usually at inopportune times and places, as well — he had six red zone turnovers, and four of them came when Alabama was tied or trailing.

Got it out of your system now? Good. Because there are some other things to consider:

His fumble rate — once about every 55 carries, is on par with Sony Michel’s. You didn’t see Georgia fans slagging their playmaker, did you? And, as a three-year starter with the Crimson Tide, TJ Yeldon became one of the steadiest, most consistent running backs of the Saban era.

The five-star from Daphne was one of the prizes of the 2012 recruiting class, and nearly became a ‘Barner. He was the No. 2 back in the country behind Texas’ Jonathan Gray — and you see who wound up having the better career. He was a Top 12 player, and the second player in the state behind only Jameis Winston. But, following the departure of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, immediate playing time was available.

And to his credit, Yeldon was able to come to campus and learn Nussmeier’s new offense, and immediately contribute just months out of high school. TJ was a co-starter with Eddie Lacy in 2012, playing in all 14 of the Crimson Tide’s games. He rushed 111 yards in his first start. That freshman campaign would see him help a ‘Bama offense win a classic SEC Championship game and later a Crimson Tide BCS title over historical rival Notre Dame. He gained 1100+ yards, averaging 6.3 YPC, and punched it in 12 times (tying Mark Ingram’s freshman record). He was named to the SEC Freshman team and the Freshman All-American squad.

Perhaps most vividly for Tide fans, had one hella’ important touchdown catch that is a now-iconic moment in Alabama history. Without this catch-and-score, there is no Western Conference title, and thus no SEC title, and thus no BCS title.

It is rare in sports that we can point to one play that defined a season. But, at least on offense, this is the one that defines the 2012 National Champions.

As a sophomore in 2013, Yeldon was the undisputed starter, But he was splitting snaps in a crowded backfield that included Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry. Still, his carries were up, his yards were up, his YPC stayed at 6/per, he added a few more touchdowns, his pass-blocking improved, and he contributed more to the passing game. He was named All-SEC first-team.

As with Damien Harris above, Yeldon saw some maturing competition cut into his carries a bit in 2014, as Henry and Drake began to get more snaps. And he was bothered by a minor-but-nagging ankle sprain that limited his effectiveness down the stretch. Nevertheless, Yeldon still averaged over 5 YPC, rushed for almost 1000 yards, scored 11 more times on the ground, and added another touchdown catch. He was again honored as an All-SEC selection.

Physically, Yeldon was a lot different than most of Nick Saban’s backs. His flat-line speed doesn’t appear to wow you — then you notice he runs a 4.52. His upright bearing looked really funky at times — then you remember he’s 6’2”. For his size, he was not the most physical or violent back either at contact — but then you watch him obliterate a Mike coming hard on a blitz, or power into the endzone, and remember that he was capable of throwing his 221-pounds into folks. But, if one thing stands out, it is Yeldon’s footwork. His feet were simply some of the very best we’ve seen on campus. For a big man, Yeldon could get really small, pick his way through the line of scrimmage, and then dance through holes. And though his acceleration wasn’t other-worldly, with the ball in his hand he didn’t run so much as he glided. In the open field, he was a terror: slippery to tackle, hard to grab, good breakaway speed, and even an occasional pirouette.

TJ is one of the smoothest runners you’ve ever seen, and we were blessed to have him on campus...even at the price of those fumbles.

Backup, Glen Coffee

Glen Coffee did not do very much his first two years with the Crimson Tide. Another one of those Shula three-stars, Coffee wasn’t even nationally ranked at his position. But, a year of redshirting and two years into the Fourth Quarter Program tapped into some previously-unrealized potential we simply never saw with Coffee.

The 2008 season was magical in a lot of respects: running the table and coming so close only to fail at year’s end lit the fire that sparked a dynasty. And Glen Coffee was the engine that could, morphing from the speed back to a speedy back willing to be physical. Splitting reps with freshman phenom Mark Ingram, Coffee ran for 1,383 yards and 11 scores, averaging almost 6 YPC. The “thunder and lightning” motif is overdone, but truly that’s what the tandem of Ingram and Glen provided — and that made #RTDB a thing, helping to establish Alabama’s MO. For his special season, Coffee was named First-Team All-SEC, and it was well-earned in a year where Knowshon Moreno was actually the conference’s leading rusher.

After a tumultuous up-and-down pro and civilian career — where Coffee flirted with the clergy, the military, and the NFL — he has finally found a home, back on campus again where he is a student assistant on the Alabama coaching staff.