Unwanted at Alabama, Alvin Kamara reinvented himself at Hutchinson Community College before resurrecting his career at the University of Tennessee. Now the backup to Jalen Hurd looks like a first-round pick.
How is that possible? It's been a long journey.
Kamara was named Georgia's Mr. Football after his senior season, in which he was selected to play in the Under Armour All-American Game. A top-tier all-purpose back according to most recruiting sites, Kamara was one of the four elite running backs signed to Alabama by head coach Nick Saban in the 2013 recruiting class. With T.J. Yeldon already on the roster—and Derrick Henry part of that '13 class—Kamara would have to earn his time.
As a redshirt freshman that first season, Kamara didn't see the field due to injury. He did see a jail cell.
One night after the season, while driving to do laundry, Kamara was pulled over on a seat belt violation. No problem, right? It is if you don't have a valid driver's license. The 19-year-old Kamara was arrested and held on charges of driving with a suspended license, failure to appear, no safety belt and no license.
A year in which Kamara was suspended twice by Alabama—once for behavioral issues, the other for an undisclosed reason—ended with the star leaving an NFL factory for a place he'd never heard of: Hutchinson, Kansas.
The change was good for Kamara as a player and a person. He told me going to Kansas allowed him to grow up and reminded him that football is a privilege. For the coaches at The Hutch, Kamara was a godsend. He racked up 21 touchdowns and almost 1,500 total yards in nine games. That was good enough for Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers.
For two seasons, Kamara shared the load with Jalen Hurd—a consensus top-10 NFL prospect at the running back position when the season started. Earning his playing time as a runner, receiver and return man, Kamara caught the eye of scouts with his dual-threat skills. In the fall of 2016, when Hurd left the team, he realized his chance to be the go-to back and responded with 13 total touchdowns.
The game film from those last two seasons—when Kamara rushed for almost 1,300 yards and caught 74 passes for 23 scores—is why he's being talked about in league circles as a first-round talent.
When asked about Kamara, one NFL scout said: "Just turn on the Vanderbilt game. The kid runs with vision, he has the burst we want to get past the defense and he's a damn good receiver out of the backfield. He's exactly what our league wants in a running back."
The Vanderbilt game, by the way, is the one where Kamara broke five tackles on a screen pass and ran in for a 21-yard score. It's hard to find one play to define a player, but this one sums up Kamara. Fast, explosive, determined.
There will be questions from NFL teams about those two suspensions at Alabama in his freshman season, but Kamara (who is 21 years old) has kept his nose clean since leaving Tuscaloosa. With his three-down skill set, one scout I spoke to preferred him to bigger names in this draft class:
"[Dalvin] Cook and [Christian] McCaffrey don't run with this kid's fight at the second level. And at least with his off-field, we know the reasons—he was immature and entitled and was a problem because he wasn't on the field. With Cook? Good luck."
One thing scouts love about Kamara is his limited wear and tear. He carried the ball only 103 times in 2016—that amounts to three games worth of Henry's load at Alabama his final season. That relative freshness compared to Leonard Fournette, Cook or McCaffrey has scouts liking the tires on Kamara's 5'10", 215-pound frame.
With questions about his background—two knee injuries plus the suspensions and arrest at Alabama—Kamara needs a good week in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine, which starts Tuesday, to quiet doubters and prove right those supporting his case as a first-round prospect.
Given the importance of athleticism and agility for running backs, the combine is an event where the test times actually matter. Running fast, jumping high and showing the explosive ability he's displayed on the field at Tennessee will put him in the conversation on Day 1.
What kind of numbers are scouts looking for?
"He's not a 4.4 guy. I'd like to see him in the low 4.5s. He was a 4.55 kid in high school, but he's heavier now, so that's realistic," one scout put it to me.
Kamara isn't a track star but has more of a compact build with short-area quickness. That's why he could dominate in the three-cone drill and short shuttle, even if he's not in the top 10 backs in the 40-yard-dash.
The other part of the combine—the one that happens away from the TV cameras—will be most important, though. Kamara will meet with NFL teams in a private interview. For 15 minutes, he'll be grilled about fumbles, tweets, injuries and what went down at Alabama. This is each team's chance to meet the player and press him on any issues that come up in the background file. For Kamara, he'll be asked about how he handled Saban's discipline and about ball security, given the number of fumbles that come up on film. Handling these speed dating-like interviews with teams will go a long way in boosting draft stock.
The first event at the combine will be telling as well. That's when Kamara will go through medical checks. There aren't expected to be any red flags here, but given the two knee injuries he's suffered in the past, teams will no doubt poke, prod and MRI him to find out just how well he'll hold up for the short and long term.
In the late first round, teams like the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs have immediate needs at running back. Both prefer fast, pass-catching backs who can create in space and give defenses fits as dual-threat players. Kamara is an excellent fit for both, and his value makes sense as a pick in the mid-to-late 20s.
If he nails the combine—on and off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium—this Georgia boy could be heading for the Midwest.