TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was one of things that one almost had to do a double take to make sure he or she saw it correctly.
During spring practices, University of Alabama running backs ran drills while carrying two footballs, one in each arm, with everyone else told to try and swat them out. That included strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, who loves to do so when people least expect it, even to the ball boys during games.
"It’s pretty aggravating at times because you have him coming and punching out a lot," senior Jalston Fowler said. "You’re like, 'Man…'
"It's pretty hard, though. If he's not messing with you, it's easy. But if he's messing with you, you could be in a world of trouble."
The two-ball drills were something new, with players told they had to keep both high and tight. When some fumbling issues emerged during last season, running backs coach Burton Burns also had his players go through a daily rugby-type scrum in which everyone had a ball and would use the other hand to try and knock/punch the others' out.
Either way, one hitting the ground results in the same thing.
"Coach Burns hollering at you, 'Come on! Come on, hold onto the ball!'" Fowler described.
Overall, Alabama had 14 fumbles last season, which is actually the fewest since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, but losing 10 ranked in the lower half of the 123 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (tied for 72nd, to be exact). In contrast, opponents had 20 fumbles but with only eight recovered by the Crimson Tide.
Granted, Alabama does play a grind-it-out style of physical football, and last season, the running game accumulated 2,898 yards and 5.8 per carry. Yet consider the numbers from the two previous seasons.
In 2011, when the Crimson Tide had 3,028 rushing yards and averaged 5.5 per carry, Alabama coughed up the ball just 12 times, losing four, which not only led the Southeastern Conference but tied Wake Forest for fewest in the nation.
In 2012, Alabama tallied 3,185 rushing yards and a 5.6 average while having 24 fumbles and losing 12. Only Arkansas and Vanderbilt had more fumbles lost in the league, and it ranked 77th overall. It was also the most fumbles of the Saban era.
|Alabama fumbles 2007-2013|
|University of Alabama statistics|
The real concern, though, is who has been making the fumbles.
Last year, the running backs were credited with nine fumbles, seven lost. No other position group had more than the wide receivers' two (one lost), and that included Christion Jones being more at risk while returning kicks and punts.
Perhaps it's a credit to having a three-year starter at the position, but quarterback AJ McCarron only had one fumble, which was lost, while in 2012, he had seven, with two recovered by the opposition.
That's a little more in line with what Alabama's experienced under Saban, as the three players who have started at quarterback have also had the most fumbles.
Nevertheless, the numbers have been on the rise for a program that rarely saw a loose ball with Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson in the backfield (and wide receiver Julio Jones never had a fumble with the Crimson Tide).
Overall, running backs have had 42 fumbles, losing 25, or averaging 6.0 and 3.57, respectively, per season. That’s roughly 33 percent of the Crimson Tide's fumbles, and 42 percent of those lost, during the past seven years.
In 2013, running back T.J Yeldon averaged a fumble lost every 56.75 times he touched the ball while reserve Kenyan Drake’s ratio was one every 35.0.
In comparison, Ingram lost two fumbles during his entire career and Richardson just one. Specially, Ingram had a fumble every 211 times he touched the ball (including carries, receptions, returns and even the time he tried to throw a pass) or a fumble lost every 317 touches.
Richardson had seven fumbles during his career, with the only one lost against Ole Miss as a freshman. That’s an average of a fumble every 90.9 touches but a fumble lost every 636 touches.
Eddie Lacy, whom Yeldon paired with in 2012 to form the first 1,000-yard rushing tandem in Crimson Tide history, finished his career with a fumble every 65.0 touches and a fumble lost every 97.5.
|Alabama leading fumblers 2007-13|
|John Parker Wilson||11-4|
|Compiled University Alabama statistics|
For his career, Yeldon, who with 2,343 career rushing yards is on pace to become Alabama's all-time rushing leader, is averaging one every 51.06 touches and a lost fumble every 68.8.
Drake’s numbers are one every 29.4 and one lost every 36.75, which obviously played a part in Derrick Henry moving up the depth chart during bowl practices last December. While it took him a while as a true freshman to get down the blocking assignments and blitz pickups, he has yet to lose the ball on 36 touches (35 carries and one reception) while gaining an average of 12.3 yards.
"T.J., Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry have all been outstanding this spring," Saban said more than once about his established trio of running backs.
Nevertheless, Drake's fumble lost during A-Day was a reminder to why it's become such a point of emphasis and that it doesn’t matter how many yards a running back can gain if he can't hold on to the ball.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.