What to make of Alabama’s running game in 2021? This may be a question that is best answered by starting with the negatives, and including the offensive line, before moving on to what the Tide did well. Because, what ‘Bama’s ground attack did well in 2021 was mostly constrained by its many limitations.
What Went Wrong
For a start, it was very hard to sort out exactly what Alabama’s ground game wanted to be — indeed what it could be — behind an offensive line that gave up the second-most TFL in Nick Saban’s Alabama tenure (and the third most in the SEC over the last 15 years).
How bad was that unit in 2021? It wasn’t quite as terrible as some of the Shula stinkers, but it was an historically-bad unit for a program in the middle of an epoch-defining dynasty. We covered it earlier, but some of these numbers bear repeating:
For just the second time in a decade, and only the 3rd time in Saban’s 15 years, the Tide offense did not hit 5 YPC on the ground.
Alabama’s 4.11 YPC was almost as bad as 2007’s 4.01 YPC average. And, its 150 YPG rushing output was barely better than the 2007 team that was held together with duct tape (149.2). Last season was the second-worst rushing output of Saban’s Tuscaloosa tenure.
Alabama allowed 105 TFL, the second-worst of Saban’s career. (In some fairness, that is somewhat to be expected with a freshman QB playing. Still, only Jalen Hurts 2016 team allowed nearly as many, 107).
Those 105 TFL were the third-worst in the SEC in the last decade. Nationally, it would place Alabama 127th, just ahead of Arkansas State, Kent State, and Southern Miss — who had a combined 12 wins.
Most programs can’t trot out the filth that Alabama did and make a good bowl, much less win a conference title and be in a one-score game with 7:13 left in a national title tilt. That they were is a testament to B Rob, mainly.
It was an inconsistent group that did not open holes or impose their will when teams knew Alabama was running the ball. As much as it pains me to say, as a unit they were soft. It did not help the unit either that they had a new line coach, fall injuries, and going into the season opener the only praise Saban could muster for them is that “they were intact.”
The warning signs were there very, very early.
So, too, is it difficult to objectively grade a unit that wasn’t healthy and/or wasn’t ready to play.
Camar Wheaton, as we’ve seen with so many young backs making the transition to SEC play, simply was not physically ready for the moment, nor did it seem he had grasped the playbook or expectations. There is a reason he hit the transfer portal rather than give it a go: this simply does not seem to be a good fit for his frame or his game. No shame in that; though, the fact many Alabama fans had thought that the injury bug could be offset somewhat by the 5-star freshman. Alas, it was not to be: Wheaton logged no stats on the year.
After a solid 2020, Jase McClellan seemed to have taken a firm grasp of the No. 2 spot, and he was effective — logging 4.76 YPC through five games. Then, he was lost for the year.
Roydell Williams was the next man up, and actually had the best YPC of any ‘Bama back — nearly 6 per tote, logging 284 total yards and a score. But, Roydell is not an every-down feature back in an offense that wants to brutalize defenses. He’s a very small guy: just 178 pound on a 6’ frame. Though, given how Alabama does the Baghdad Bob for player stats, he’s likely closer to 5’10.5” and 170. His size made him too limited in pass blocking, a skill that B Rob excelled at and that the much more compact, larger Jase McClellan could competently perform (212 pounds, 5’11”).
While Trey Sanders improved as the year went along, and was a contender for the 2-spot, his health was still an issue early in the season. He was hesitant, tentative, and still did not truly trust his body. That is certainly understandable, given his catastrophic injury. So, we’ll give Trey a pass here. Throw in the loss of Keilan Williams in the offseason, and it was a very thin running back room. In fact, it was a one-man show.
So, we’ll try and temper any criticism given the forgoing limitations.
What Went Right?
The key to Alabama’s offensive success was its dominating third-down conversion rate, which was 1st overall in the nation. That was buoyed by a hyper-efficient passing attack (3rd overall), though one without much explosiveness.
So, while it was an offense that had many negative plays, it did not have many overall negative drives (7th overall in that category). After a negative play, Alabama had either still been ahead of the chains, or had gotten ahead of the chains on the next play to make third down a manageable one.
People look to Bryce for that, but this was largely the result of Alabama’s not-so-secret weapon: Brian Robinson, Jr.
You can see how this particularly is illustrated on first down. B Rob had a decent 4.92 YPC average for the year, and notched a 1000+ yard, 14-TD season. But where he was outstanding was on first down, when defenses were forced to play vanilla, and the offensive line was not folding like origami: B Rob averaged 5.91 YPC on first down. And, if you give Alabama three additional downs to make 4.09 yards, you are essentially conceding drives.
With each successive down, that mark dropped some. But, on 3rd and 4th down, B Rob was still averaging close to 4 YPC — leading to 53 of his carries being Alabama first downs. In some ways, he compares favorably too (and even outperforms) Najee Harris in this category. Last season, 64 of Harris’s rushes were for first downs, but his YPC on 3rd down was much lower than B Rob’s (3.30 vs. 3.94). Robinson isn’t the home run threat of No. 22, but in terms of a grinder he actually turned out to be even better overall on these critical drives than Harris was, and he even has more explosiveness than you’d think (32 rushes of 10+ yards vs. 47 for Najee).
You can’t scheme for that success either, because any DC worth his salt had to factor in what Bryce Young does on 3rd down — he was simply a completion machine. Young’s success on third down made Robinson a better late-down player; just as Robinson’s success on first down gave Young a more manageable throw.
Did 2021 feature a dominating Alabama running game? No.
Was it a serviceable running game? That depends.
It was one that just was not very good in conference play. Only three times all season did Alabama hit 6 YPC: Cincinnati, New Mexico State, Southern Miss. In SEC play, the Tide never hit 5.0 YPC in any contest. In fact, in five of ‘Bama’s 10 SEC contests, Alabama was at or below 3 YPC. And, against Power 5 teams overall, Alabama was an awful 3.39 YPC — 76th in the country, and dead last in the SEC.
There are clear structural problems here that begin with line play, carry through depth and health, and then end with playcalling. But Brian Robinson wasn’t the issue — despite a limited skill set, he put this offense on his back and helped Young mature into a better player...when he could.
The problem was, he couldn’t do it enough with the guys in front of him.
B ROB: A-
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