One of the most asked coffee-shop questions during the offseason was about who would emerge as the feature running back for the Alabama Crimson Tide this season.
Heisman winner Mark Ingram and finalist Trent Richardson are now playing on Sundays, and for the first time in three years, the Tide are entering the season without a clear first-string back. Freshman sensation T.J. Yeldon might just have answered that question Saturday night.
One of the more impressive performances in Alabama's 41-14 drubbing of Michigan, other than C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest, Dee Milliner, A.J. McCarron, the offensive line and so on, was the collegiate debut by T.J. Yeldon. Yeldon became the first Alabama running back in history to go for over 100 yards in his first game with the Tide. By the end of the night, he had totalled 137 yards on just 12 touches (11 carries and one reception), and took the running-back competition in Tuscaloosa to a new level.
Yeldon got his first action on the second possession for the Tide with a dazzling 14-yard carry, followed by a pair of five-yard bursts that helped to set up the first score. His next action came early in the second quarter, when he bounced to the left and broke three tackles en route to a 40-yard carry. Three plays later, McCarron hit him on a 26-yard screen pass and the legend of T.J. was officially in the works.
Coming out of the half, with the game in hand, Yeldon got the bulk of the playing time. His five carries for 43 yards in the third quarter were rewarded with his first touchdown opportunity in the fourth for the Tide's last points of the night.
Over the course of the game, head coach Nick Saban used all four members of his running-back tandem, as each was given between eight and 11 carries. Junior Eddie Lacy got the start, but seemed to have landed himself in the Saban doghouse after fumbling on the last play of the first half. He only received one carry after the break, as Yeldon took advantage of his opportunity with flying colors.
Yeldon was listed as the No. 2 back on the depth chart coming into the game, sharing the role with Jalston Fowler. Redshirt freshman Dee Hart was fourth.
So when will Yeldon become the feature back? It may be happening before our eyes. He was clearly the most effective and most trusted of the foursome Saturday night.
Lacy has had a reputation of being unable to protect the football since his arrival in Tuscaloosa. As much of a punishing back as he is, it appears that Lacy needs the offensive line to clear out some big holes for him in order to consistently thrive.
Based on what we saw against Michigan, it looks like Fowler will be used as a blocking back as well. This will limit his carries somewhat. Hart was clearly the weakest of the four in this game, garnering only 19 yards on nine carries.
This leaves Yeldon. He has definitely earned the respect of his coaching staff already, as shown by his extended playing time in the opener. With what should be a dress rehearsal against Western Kentucky this coming weekend, Yeldon will have a chance to further cement himself as the leader of the pack before the Tide heads to Arkansas on Sept. 15 for the SEC opener.
There is little doubt that Saban intends to use at least three of these backs on a regular basis, if for nothing else than to keep fresh legs in the offensive backfield. All of them are talented and capable of putting up huge numbers on any given day.
Still, if there was any doubt as to who will be the next superstar running back for Alabama, there certainly isn't any now. Yeldon looked like a seasoned veteran out there rather than a wide-eyed freshman in his first college game. More than once, he reminded me of former USC running back Reggie Bush, with his similar frame, quick steps and ability to change speeds and cut on a dime at will.
Lacy will continue to get the starting nod for a few more weeks, if for no other reason than seniority. But, Yeldon will get more and more touches as the season progresses.
If it continues to play out like it did last weekend, Lacy is not much more than a fumble or two away from cleaning up the scraps that Yeldon leaves in his wake on his way to greatness for the Alabama Crimson Tide.