Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara is still familiar with the long, dark road.
He remembers that it takes a little less than an hour to drive from Wichita Mid-Continent Airport to Hutchinson Community College, how there’s little between them and how Kansas' K-96 state highway is mostly straight and flat with few traffic lights—more simply aren’t needed.
“It was weird at first,” he said. “It caught me by surprise.”
Highway 96 was also the crossroads of Kamara's football career, if not his life.
Alabama, the school he initially signed with in 2013, was already in his rearview mirror, along with an arrest.
Ahead was a small-town football team that had a weight room smaller than the one he used at Norcross High School in Georgia, where he had rushed for 2,264 yards and 26 touchdowns, averaging 7.5 yards per carry on the way to a Mr. Football Award in his senior season.
You can use whatever cliche you want, "wake-up call" or "saw the light," but Kamara certainly did. Instead of dwelling on “How did I end up here?” he made the most of the opportunity and is now looking forward to doing the same with his second chance as a key part of the Volunteers offense.
“It definitely changed me,” he said.
Although Norcross is located just northeast of Atlanta, and on the way from Athens and the University of Georgia, Kamara had always wanted to blaze his own trail, his way. Instead of the hometown Bulldogs he chose Alabama, the school that boasted the last Heisman Trophy winner at his position and had once accidentally sent him 105 recruiting letters in one day.
“Initially, I just felt like that was the fit for me, and then one thing led to another,” Kamara said.
At the time, Alabama was looking to bulk up the position, because even though T.J. Yeldon had rushed for 1,108 yards as a freshman, Eddie Lacy was entering the NFL draft early, and the rest of the running backs were a bunch of question marks like Dee Hart, who was coming off his second ACL injury.
So it signed four top running backs, which was considered a bit of a recruiting coup but also made people wonder how the Crimson Tide could keep all of them content. Most of the buzz surrounded one player in particular, Derrick Henry, who had just broken Ken Hall's 51-year-old national high school rushing record with 12,124 yards after rushing for 4,261 yards as a senior.
Henry was the only one of the four to get a head start by enrolling early. He was rated the No. 12 prospect in the nation by 247Sports, followed by Kamara (42), Altee Tenpenny at (53) and Tyren Jones at (66).
“To me, to have really good depth at running back you need five really good players,” coach Nick Saban said at the time. “I think a lot of these guys are going to have a good opportunity to contribute next year."
Kamara thought so too but ended up only being a spectator. Midway through training camp he suffered a knee injury that would require arthroscopic surgery. It would mark the beginning of his descent and eventual exit from Tuscaloosa.
“He was doing extremely well,” Saban said. “He’s going to be a really good player, and this is not something that would supersede us continuing to try to use him this year if he can come back and learn while he’s not out there and be able to continue to develop by learning from other people’s mistakes, watching film. Sometimes you can see the big picture better that way than you can when you’re out there right in the middle of it.”
Kamara’s frustration grew as the season progressed. When Alabama was preparing to face LSU after the bye week in early November, Saban announced that he had been suspended for "behavior reasons.” A second suspension was handed down for the Sugar Bowl with no reason given.
Things boiled over during a high-stakes recruiting weekend just before national signing day, during which depending on whom you talk to, Kamara might have cost the Crimson Tide a shot at flipping defensive back C.J. Hampton from Ole Miss, and fans treated him accordingly on message boards and through social media.
He subsequently asked to be released from his scholarship, and Saban accepted.
Kamara’s career took another huge hit when he was arrested in his hometown a few weeks later on Feb. 16, 2014, and charged with driving on a suspended license.
The 19-year-old spent about eight hours in jail.
To some he was damaged goods, but not to everyone. Tennessee had been one of the schools to contact him almost immediately after his release from his scholarship, and Kamara was determined to get back to the SEC.
Yet first he had to attend a junior college. Some of his high school teammates had gone the Hutchinson route, as had former Volunteers wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. So he signed on to "The Hutch" and wore No. 1 for the Blue Dragons.
In nine games, Kamara ran for 1,253 yards and scored 21 touchdowns (18 rushing, three receiving) en route to being named the Kansas Junior College Offensive Player of the Year. More than that, though, the experience made him grow up some and realize that he had to really work for and appreciate the things that he wanted.
“Alvin was just a super-dynamic player for us,” Hutchinson head coach Rion Rhoades said. “That’s probably an understatement. I appreciated the way he played. He just enjoyed playing the game.
“He was a positive force. I really liked the way he carried himself on game day in particular. There are ebbs and flows of the game, and he always handled them.”
Kamara ended his second round of recruiting by tweeting in June that he would be attending Tennessee. Upon his signing in December coach Butch Jones immediately told reporters that he was a “great, great recruiting get for us.”
"He has the ability to make you miss at the second level but also has a toughness to run in between the tackles,” Jones said.
“You talk about being a complete running back; we feel he is a complete running back. He can catch the football, he can do a lot with the ball in his hands and he is a tough, competitive young man."
While Tennessee fans started to envision the “scary” backfield combination of Kamara and 6’3,” 227-pound Jalen Hurd, who rushed for 899 yards as a freshman, the coach continued to rave as the junior college prospect continued to do everything asked of him and more.
For example, in the spring the players had to “earn” their uniforms with the players voting on who would have the excessive black stripe removed from his helmet. Kamara was the first among the running backs.
Moreover, during training camp the coach called Kamara "the voice of the offense."
“Alvin has been a great addition to our football family, and to his credit, from day one, all he’s done is work,” Jones said during this week’s SEC coaches teleconference. “He’s built that credibility among his peers, and he’s one of our team leaders.”
“That means a lot,” Kamara said about the praise. “I think that comes from the respect I have of my teammates, the offensive unit.”
His comeback complete, Kamara says there are no hard feelings with Alabama. He’s looking forward to returning on Oct. 24 and finally playing in a game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Since his departure, Henry has become Alabama’s leading rusher, but Tenpenny transferred and Jones was dismissed from the team. One can only speculate where Kamara might fit in if still on the roster, but he was a popular player on the Crimson Tide and still keeps in touch with a number of his former teammates.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “It’s crazy because I was just thinking about that last night. On the field we’re all going to be trying to kill each other, but after the game it’s going to be all handshakes and hugs.”
Alabama players said the same thing, including the friend who will have the primary responsibility of trying to stop him, senior interior linebacker Reggie Ragland, who likes to call Kamara a “little brother.”
“He’s a good dude on and off the field,” Ragland said. “He had his little issues here, but it is what it is, and I think when we play them it’s going to be a friendly meeting with one another, because there are others on the team who have love for him, and I have love for him regardless.
“Whenever we meet, before the game, after the game, whenever, I’m always going to show love to him, I’m always going to have love for him, even though his time here was short. Either way, if he needs something he can call on me, and if I need something from him I can call on him.”
However, the first time they collide on the field, Ragland said he’ll help him up and say, “What’s up, little bro?”
“I’m going to say ‘What’s up, big bro?’ and keep it moving,” Kamara said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Rankings courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.