Alabama Football: Running Back Depth Issue Worse Than It Looks

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Alabama Football: Running Back Depth Issue Worse Than It Looks
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Dee Hart struggles for a meager gain against Michigan.

Alabama's recent loss of Jalston Fowler for the season tacked on to starter Eddie Lacy's nagging injuries are leaving the Tide's running back corps looking quite depleted, and it's worse than it looks.

The Crimson Tide and its fans revel in the fact that they always field a strong group of running backs, a group that often has many wondering whether their backup is better than their starter. But this time around, the backup to the backup just might end up being the starter.

Fowler is out for the season. Those that looked closely the other night may have seen that his knee was bent about 30 degrees...in the wrong direction. It just wasn't one of those "shake it off in a couple weeks" kind of thing.

Lacy is in trouble. First, you have to ask if his turf toe has really healed after surgery. It's a decimating injury that (as I've said so many times) is a lot worse than it sounds.

Second, he has been plagued with other nagging injuries and has split carries almost equally with true freshman T.J. Yeldon. Yeldon also had more carries in the season opener against Michigan.

It's clear he is not 100 percent and may not be for a while.

Enter the Tide's trio of freshmen.

At the top we have Yeldon, who will be the clear-cut starter if Lacy's health is not up to the task on any given Saturday.

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE
T.J. Yeldon can run the ball, but there's more to his job than just that.

He's an incredible talent that has already showcased what he can do, and he did it in glorious fashion. In two games, he has put up 209 yards of total offense with one touchdown and an eight yards-per-carry rushing average. Not bad for a true freshman, eh?

But there's a problem with a true freshman as a starter, even at running back, the easiest position to pick up quickly at each level.

You see, Yeldon's performance thus far is strikingly similar to that of former Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell.

During his 2011 freshman campaign, Crowell performed well as a rusher, but as an every down back, he struggled in pass protection. The poor guy couldn't read and pick up a blitz to save his (or Aaron Murray's) life.

With Fowler out and Lacy's future contributions uncertain, Yeldon is the main guy, and his ability to pick up blitzes is going to be very important to the Tide.

After all, if the opponent blitzes seven guys, there's only five offensive linemen and a tight end. No one has two tight ends in pass protection at the same time.

How will Yeldon fair as a raw, green and wet-behind-the-ears true freshman running back in pass protection? Even the mighty Trent Richardson struggled now and then in 2011 as a pass blocker.

The other true freshman that will see an expanded role is Kenyan Drake. Drake was not as highly touted as Yeldon, so I've got to give him props for sticking with his commitment to the Tide, knowing that he would be competing directly with Yeldon for playing time.

John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE
Kenyan Drake wears Brad Smelley's number well as he busts out a 32-yard run.

Drake was still a 4-star prospect with great measurables as listed on his Rivals page and a 3.5 GPA to boot. Currently at 6'1" and 204 pounds, he looks like a great prospect and busted out a 32-yard run against a very underrated Western Kentucky defense last weekend.

He's talented and adds great depth, but he is still a freshman as well.

Finally we have Demetrius "Dee" Hart, freshly recovered from his turn ACL that he suffered in July 2011. A redshirt freshman is still a freshman.

Talk about a guy with a lot of potential. He's an oversized (at 5'8", 190 pounds I use the term "oversized" loosely) Darren Sproles, a guy who may prove to be the best trade the New Orleans Saints ever made. 

He was the nation's top all-purpose back in the 2011 class but has looked anything but so far, likely due to the training time and practice that he lost from his injury. Muscle atrophy is a hell of a handicap.

He seems slower than he did in his high school highlights and has had great difficulty finding holes in his 12 carries that produced a meager 2.58 yards-per-carry.

This is not the same Hart the 'Bama faithful watched as a high school stud back in 2010. He'll get there again eventually, but it may not be by the time that Alabama hits the SEC gauntlet.

The Crimson Tide is going to have to rely heavily on these three freshman in the coming weeks, especially if Lacy's contributions and injuries don't improve.

Other than T.J. Yeldon, who will benefit most from an expanded role after Fowlers injury?

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That leaves a deep concern for the depth of the position. It's a familiar scenario, as the Tide lost two running backs just before the 2011 season started and dealt with Lacy's mid-season turf toe.

Back then, however, they had Trent Richardson. He was the meanest and toughest son of a gun to tote the rock in college football since Adrian Peterson. He could rush 30 times a game without blinking an eye, and he was a seasoned junior.

The previously mentioned fellas are freshmen who just don't have that in-game experience. They may be able to rack up some yards, but a running back's duties go beyond just that.

The additional duties include pass protection (as mentioned before) as well as the little details, such as perfectly selling the fake handoff on play action or running routes as a receiver out of the backfield.

Bursting through seams and falling forward will only get the team so far. Will the Tide's young running backs step up the challenge?

A extraneous benefit to this situation is that Alabama's senior running back Ben Howell, premature male pattern baldness and all, may get some playing time. I can say that because I'm 27 and already clinging to scraps up top.

The depth situation for the Tide's running back corps is more dire than it seems.

But hey, look on the bright side: Alabama may field the first true freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy.

Yea, I said it.

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