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Alabama's Incredible Stable of Running Backs Signifies a Change in Philosophy

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Alabama's Incredible Stable of Running Backs Signifies a Change in Philosophy
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In 2013, the Alabama Crimson Tide will feature an abundance of running backs that could easily start for your team this fall. The wealth of ball-carrying riches is so deep, so versatile, that it’s impossible to envision any position on any team in the country that comes close to matching this kind of depth.

Don’t bother trying (trust me, I tried).

The depth becomes even more ridiculous when you realize Alabama will be without workhorse running back Eddie Lacy, who left early for the NFL. Lacy eclipsed 1,300 yards and totaled 19 touchdowns last season, and a loss of this magnitude would be an overpowering blow to the depth chart for most squads.

As we have learned over the past few seasons, however, the regular rules, rituals and roster attrition simply don't apply here. The Tide don't rebuild; they reload and make a taxing process look rather simple.

Of the past six recruiting classes, Alabama has walked away with the No. 1 class five times, according to Rivals.com. While star power means very little before players actually hit the field and produce, Nick Saban’s recruits have certainly backed up their incoming star power.

He’s recruited well at every position, but his work at running back is bordering on unfair. The success Alabama has had running the football stretches well beyond the unbelievable athletes taking handoffs—last year’s ridiculous offensive line was a brick wall on wheels—but there is no position in college football that has been more consistently dominant of late.

It doesn’t hurt to have the likes of Lacy, Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram carrying the football, and the numbers since 2007 tell the story. In this time, Alabama’s yards per carry have gone up each season, culminating with a ridiculous 5.59 yards per carry last year.

This extraordinary increase in production also helps highlight a massive change of philosophy brewing in Tuscaloosa; a trend away from the need and desire to have a “feature” back. 

With the added carries comes added wear and tear, something Saban has identified and preached to incoming players who have their sights set on the NFL. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples touched on this earlier this month, showing how and why top recruits are buying in at an alarming rate despite a jam-packed depth chart.

"That's always one of my sales pitches for them," Saban said, courtesy of Sports Illustrated. "The shelf life of a running back is the shortest of any position in the NFL." 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The result is what you’ll see in 2013. They are an inexperienced group, but what they lack in minutes, they make up for in ability.

“To me, to have really good depth at running back, you need five really good players. Three guys usually play a lot,” Saban said on national signing day (via Al.com).

Five is nice, sure, but why stop there?

Eight running backs, all of whom were no less than a 4-star recruit (according to Rivals), are expected to be on the team next season. Injuries, transfers and other offseason unknowns can derail these plans, although perhaps that highlights the overall point. Alabama has running backs—talented, impactful, highly regarded weapons—to spare.

Although the stars attributed to these names by recruiting websites are impressive, it certainly doesn’t mean much in terms of guaranteed results. It does, however, highlight how highly regarded the roster is from top to bottom. 

 

The No. 1

T.J. Yeldon became a star in his first spring game last season, and he backed it up in his first game against Michigan. The 5-star recruit enrolled early, and he’ll be arguably the most talented running back in college football next season.

The moment he first touched the football, you knew he was special. It’s really all it took, and the sky appears to be the limit. This was apparent throughout his freshman season as he finished with more than 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 6.3 yards per carry.

 

The (Potential) No. 2

Next in line—at least right now—will likely be sophomore-to-be Kenyan Drake. Drake was the No. 13-ranked running back at Rivals last season, and he served mainly as the “mop-up” runner for Nick Saban.

It’s nice to have a “mop-up” talent that can score five touchdowns on only 42 touches and also average 6.7 yards per carry in his first season. Expect that production to pick up with Lacy off to the NFL.

 

Back From Injury

Both Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart suffered season-ending knee injuries early on in the 2012 season, and I’m curious to see their roles and availability during spring and beyond.

Michael Chang/Getty Images
Fowler, a massive back, also served as the team’s fullback during his junior year. It took a few years for him to get carries, but he could be a very valuable weapon in a variety of ways. He’ll likely have a similar role—if healthy—as a senior.

Hart came in as the No. 1-ranked back on Rivals in 2011, but he simply has not been able to stay healthy. He tore his ACL in the summer of his freshman season, and Alabama only got a glimpse of his potential in 21 carries before he went down again in late September with another knee injury.

Although we’re not sure what to expect from either at this point, both have tremendous potential if they can stay healthy.

 

The Talented Batch of New Faces

As if the potential of the group in place wasn’t enough, Alabama reloaded, adding four running backs in the 2013 class, all of whom finished in the Rivals 100.

Think about that for a second. Four gifted players at the same position, all of whom are regarded as one of the top 100 players in the country, committed to the same team in one offseason. The philosophy and dominance is certainly on display.

The most intriguing incoming talent—and perhaps the most likely to see the field early—is record-setting back Derrick Henry, who ran for more yards in high school than anyone ever. After more than 12,000 yards at the high school ranks, it’s time for the SEC. Good luck tackling him.

At 6’3” and 240 pounds, there was talk (and it could surface again) of him playing linebacker. For now, it appears Henry will be a ball-carrier, and he could offer up a dramatic change of pace out of the gate. He’s also already on the Alabama campus.

Alvin Kamara, Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones will arrive later on this summer, and the competition for carries early will be fascinating. 

All three were tremendous high school talents, and one (or all) will undoubtedly break through with fast starts and push for time early. While the potential of these backs at the college level is unknown, many teams would have loved to receive just one of those letters of intent.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
How do you keep all of these running backs happy? Who is best suited where? How do you manage the carries?

This is what we’re left assessing and part of the wonderful tribulations Nick Saban will have to manage going forward. At the rate he's winning crystal footballs and sending talent to the NFL, the results do most of the talking.

It’s never this simple, but the sheer absurdity of Alabama’s depth at the position makes the unexpected that much easier to manage. Injuries and transfers could (and likely will) surface at some point, but it’ll take an unprecedented string of events to put this kind of depth at risk. 

The bigger potential issue this season won’t be at running back, where they are loaded despite the youth, but with an offensive line that is being rebuilt. 

With offensive linemen Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker off to the NFL—all of whom will be off the board early—this could finally be the year where we finally see a dip in the chart above. After all, this is truly where the success begins. 

As we’ve seen at pretty much every position, however, Alabama doesn’t usually have to wait long. With more than a handful of incredible runners ready for takeoff, the next great offensive linemen are in the works as well. There's no change in philosophy here, just more great players on a roster loaded with talent.

As for the next great running backs? Well, needless to say, they’re getting a jump on the process. 

A very early jump.

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