With less than 60 days until the start of the 2012 football season, there is still uncertainty as to who will lead the Alabama Crimson Tide in its quest for a second consecutive BCS National Championship.
On the defensive end the Tide will be replacing the likes of Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and DeQuan Menzie, among others.
The biggest loss on the offensive side, though, will surely be running back and Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson. Richardson carried the Alabama ground game in 2011, leading the team with 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns before rightfully vaulting to the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
Seasoned veteran and junior Eddie Lacy, and returning junior Jalston Fowler will be fiercely challenged by incoming freshmen Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon for the role of feature back in 2012—if there is even going to be a feature back.
Since 2009, the Tide have placed their offensive game plan firmly on the shoulders of Richardson and 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram. But going into the 2012 season, the role of feature back for the Tide is quite unclear.
Head Coach Nick Saban is no stranger to using a multitude of running backs as a part of his regular rotation. Since 2009, only once has an Alabama running back carried the ball on more than 45% of the Tide's total carries (Richardson accounted for 55.7% in 2011). As a matter of fact, it seems that Saban prefers to have multiple backs, keeping fresh legs ever ready on the Alabama sideline.
In Saban's best years at LSU (2003-2004), he had four running backs carry the ball between 75-150 times over the course of the season. Who remembers the four-headed monster of Alley Broussard, Robert Addai, Justin Vincent and Shyrone Carey from the 2003 BCS title squad?
Since taking the helm at Alabama, Saban's feature back has carried the ball an average of 227 times for roughly 1297 yards. His second go-to back has averaged another 125 carries and 680 yards. The backups have consistently gotten the ball roughly half as much as the feature back.
The upcoming 2012 campaign, however, may be one in which Saban reverts back to his successful LSU approach.
Lacy, the obvious incumbent, carried the ball for 674 yards, seven touchdowns and averaged a whopping 7.1 yards per carry in 2011. But still nursing a toe injury from last fall left him out of spring practice and unable to cement his place as the starting running back. Still, with his wicked spin move and punishing strength, the 6'0, 220-lbs junior is a favorite to take the lead this fall.
Fowler, another bruising back out of Mobile, Alabama, is even bigger than Lacy. At 6'1, 242 lbs, Fowler gained 385 yards in 2011 on just 56 carries, scoring four times. Not as nationally heralded as his predecessors, Fowler burst onto the scene in mop-up time last season and earned his way into Saban's rotation.
And now for the unknowns. Saban and new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have a pair of five-star freshmen that they can turn to.
Redshirt freshman Dee Hart of Orlando came to Alabama in 2011 rated as the top running back recruit in the country by Rivals, but missed the 2011 season with a knee injury. Back for the spring practice session, Hart showed his quickness and ability with five carries for 44 yards in the annual A-Day game back in April.
A true freshman and early enrollee out of Daphne, AL, T.J. Yeldon was the one that garnered the most attention this spring, though. After spurning arch-rival Auburn by decommitting and placing his future in the hands of Saban in January, Yeldon carried the ball 16 times for 94 yards in the spring game. He also had another 85 yards receiving, something even Saban had to be impressed with.
Rated nationally as the second best running back in the 2012 recruiting class, again by Rivals, Yeldon will surely get his chance to follow up on that performance when practices resume.
Ultimately, Alabama should be strong offensively led by quarterback A.J. McCarron and possibly the best offensive line in the country, but the ground game is expected to once again hold its own as well. The feature back may not be a Heisman candidate, but sometimes four sets of fresh legs beat a pair of beaten down hams when the leaves start to fall in October, and the home stretch of the season is well under way.
It is unclear which of these athletes will emerge as the top man on Saban's totem pole of talent, but whichever one it is, the Tide are sure to be in safe hands.