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2022 Alabama Football Report Card: Running Backs — Better blocking, better running, better effort

This grew into as dangerous a unit as any in the country

Auburn v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Looking Back:

2021 Final Grade: D+ (A- B Rob)

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.

If you thought the offensive line made a vast improvement (and it did), then let me tell you about the one single unit that outperformed them, and made the most year-over-year improvement: the Crimson Tide running backs.

In 2021, it was the B Rob show by and large. Injuries to Roydell and Jase, as well as unsteady performances by younger players, left the cupboard as bare as it had been in the past 15 years. That’s when BoB was actually calling their number in appropriate downs-and-distances — which didn’t happen nearly enough; and that’s when the offensive line got their crapulent ejecta together enough to block, which happened even less frequently.

But, man, when you gave this group a year of good health, an improved offensive line, and add a dash of home run threat? The running backs were not just serviceable, they were often lethal. For a passing team, they were an indispensable facet of the offense.

Let’s take a brief look at the complete and total improvement we saw across the board:

  • Alabama saw its overall YPC improve from 4.11 to 5.57; it ran for more yards on far fewer attempts: 457 carries for 2544 vs. 548 for 225 in 2021; it improved its TD scoring by 20% (21 vs. 26); and the Tide vastly improved the running game as a share of the offense, raising production by a full one-third: from 150 yards to 195.65 per contest. And Alabama did this against a tougher SOS, and in two fewer games.
  • The Tide saw modest improvements in YPC against ranked teams (about 12%), and against teams with winning records overall (10%).
  • After hitting 5+ YPC a measly three times in 2021, the 2022 Tide did it 9 times.
  • After rushing for a miserable 3.43 YPG in conference games in 2021, the Tide vaulted to 4.89 per tote in 2022: they would lead the SEC in YPC.
  • They were outstanding in the passing game, as well. In 2021, the backs had just 51 catches, for about 580 yards, and a mere 6 scores. In 2022, the backs got a lot of work, both as a strategy to move the chains, and as part of the Bryce Young Draft Protection Program: a quick flare to Gibbs beats 5-step drops and trying to see over the line while a slow-ass play developed. 2021 saw far too many slow-developers, as the backs weren’t as useful as they otherwise could have been. In 2022, they had over 70 catches as a group, and almost 700 yards. They were not used as much in the redzone — that was the domain of Jermaine Burton and Cameron Latu’s domain, but they were used a lot more throughout the year to keep drives going.
  • And their effort showed up in ways beyond fantasy football stats too: For instance, after contributing to seven sacks allowed against Bryce Young in 2021, the ‘backs were “credited” with just two whiffs in 2022
  • And, after not having a single back that went over 5 YPC in 2021, all-but one rotational player did so: Gibbs (6.13), Jase (5.90), Jamarion (6.76), Trey (5.71). Only Roydell did not reach 5 YPC, but he was used heavily in goal- and short-down situations; and, even then, he was still above the national average at 4.46 YPC.
  • But Jahmyr Gibbs was simply a monster in ways large and small. He was Alabama’s leading receiver, rusher, scorer (by a position player), and leader in yards from scrimmage. His YPC were the best by an Alabama starter/co-starter since Najee, back in 2018. He averaged almost 8 yards every time he touched the ball — the fact he got 19 touches a game in both phases is either criminal mismanagement, or too many quality backs and just one ball to go around. His soft hands and electric speed bought the offense a lot of space on clear-outs, and kept linebackers and safeties occupied as a rebuilt WR corps tried to find their way. Stats-wise, he was very good though not dominant; but this is where we remind you that there lies, damn lies, and statistics. Gibbs did everything well and made everyone around him better. He’ll be a stud in the NFL.

There were issues, sure, particularly with fumbles (cough, Roydell) and in short yardage situations, the Tide running game could simply not be trusted. Hell, on 3rd down as a whole, they were fairly cromulent: Under 3 yards to go on 3rd down, just Alabama averaged a paltry 1.54 YPC, with three fumbles and just one score. On 4th, it was even worse: Alabama was in negative territory. They did have two scores on those nine attempts, but finished the year converting just three of them, and a sad -1.44 per touch in these must-make situations.

But, that is likely a function of the offensive line — especially given Ekiyor’s regression. The interior was still not very good last year, and as that fact showed up in their production numbers, it’s being reflected in these data as well.

Taken as a group, where they began, how they finished, how they improved across the board, and how they did so wildly outperforming the year before, I don’t know how you can rate this unit as anything other than a raging success...even with their issues in short yardage and ball security.

2022 Final Grade: A-