Ever since Alabama running back Jalston Fowler stepped onto the Tuscaloosa campus, he has been compared to the likes of former Tide fullback and NFL running back Le'Ron McClain. That is a pretty strong compliment for a high school kid from Prichard, Alabama.
The 6'1", 248-pound Fowler has been leaving linebackers and defenses bruised and battered since he first began playing football as a youngster, and he has no plans of stopping that habit any time soon.
At Vigor High School, Fowler played on both sides of the ball (running back and linebacker), leading his team to a state title and picking up numerous accolades along the way, including an All-State nomination. He left high school ranked among the top 20 running back recruits in the nation, according to multiple recruiting services.
After his 2010 commitment to Alabama, Fowler enrolled early in an effort to get a head start via spring practice. In limited action during his freshman season, Fowler was held to 111 yards on just 14 carries as a running back, but also earned time on special teams.
Playing behind future first-round picks like Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson didn't make it easy for Fowler to find the field, but he made the most of his opportunities, averaging just under eight yards per carry. His best effort came in mop-up work during a 62-13 win over Duke (six carries for 48 yards).
After the departure of Ingram, Fowler worked his way from fifth to third on the depth chart for his sophomore season in 2011. Often used as a goal line and short-yardage back, Fowler helped the Tide pick up 16 first downs on the season, even though he only carried the ball 56 times.
After only having his name called 16 times in the first five games, Fowler earned additional work during a three-game stretch in October, tallying 210 yards on 31 carries with a pair of touchdowns. His best effort of the season came in a 52-7 drubbing of Ole Miss, in which he carried the ball 13 times for 125 yards and two scores, including a long of 69 yards. Fowler finished the season with 385 yards and four scores while averaging 6.9 yards per attempt (more than Richardson).
This season will be the one that makes or breaks Jalston Fowler as a big time running back. Richardson, like Ingram, has moved on to the NFL. One would think that Fowler would be a lock to follow fellow junior Eddie Lacy on the Tide depth chart.
Unfortunately, impressive spring and fall camps by a pair of freshmen are leaving the depth chart in question at the moment. T.J. Yeldon and Dee Hart have both impressed this offseason, creating a three-man race for the role of backup.
This could go a number of ways. Saban has used as many as four ball carriers regularly before, notably in his BCS title run while head coach at LSU. Many believe that Saban would actually prefer to continuously substitute in fresh legs at running back rather than to have just one man carry the majority of the load, as he has done in each of the last three seasons.
If that happens, Fowler would likely see the ball eight to ten times a game, primarily in short yardage situations.
This scenario (four backs) is a very real possibility as even Lacy has had issues with protecting the football, and has yet to prove that he can handle the role of feature back. Lacy and Fowler are big, bruising backs—while Hart and Yeldon are faster and more elusive. It seems likely that this year's crop of backs could provide something of a perfect storm for the Alabama offense.
If Saban does settle on a pair of backs, a la Ingram and Richardson in 2010, Fowler will have to prove himself worthy in camp. His advantage in experience and punishing size will certainly keep him in the mix this season, but how much action he will get is unknown.
At the end of the day, Jalston Fowler knows he needs to make his move this season if he aims to put together a highlight reel that will attract future NFL suitors. But with a reputation for hard work and a positive, never give up attitude—the odds are in his favor.