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Alabama Running Backs, Best Group Ever?

This group of running backs has a chance to be very special, but will they be the best ever?

Alabama Running Backs, Best Group Ever?

By: Larry Burton

Sometimes it’s hard and very subjective to ever get into one of those “Best Ever” arguments. You can say that the competition is different, rules may be different and so on and so on.

But when it comes to this being perhaps the deepest set of quality running backs at Alabama at any one time in history, it is argument that is easier to make than most.

Let the arguments now begin on who deserves to be “The Man” and get the lions share of carries this season as there are logical arguments that the man already penciled in as starter by most, T.J. Yeldon, a running back getting some Heisman buzz and the best running back in America may in fact, not even be the best running back on the team.

Most of running backs in the mix were here last season and last season there was no doubt who got the most carries, it was Yeldon, but of the running backs with more than 25 carries, and there were three of those including him, he was third in yards per carry average.

Drake was the explosive back, but pegged as a risky ball carrier who had security issues with the ball. Then there was the Tiger Tank of the group, Derrick Henry, who lead all those rushers in yards per carry average, but he was a freshman playing against tired defeated defenders during garbage time for the most part. However, he did put on a show in the bowl game in a losing effort when Drake was in the dog house once again.

Here are those stats from last season’s rushing participants…

NAME CAR YDS AVG LONG TD
T.J. Yeldon 207 1235 6.0 68 (TD) 14
Kenyan Drake 92 694 7.5 50 (TD) 8
Derrick Henry 36 382 10.6 80 (TD) 3
Jalston Fowler 19 88 4.6 15 0
Altee Tenpenny 22 82 3.7 20 1
Dee Hart 22 78 3.5 13 1
Blake Sims 15 61 4.1 11  (Quarterback) 0
Christion Jones 2 34 17.0 20 (Receiver)   0
Chris Black 1 31 31.0 31 (TD) (Receiver)   1
Amari Cooper 1 28 28.0 28 (Receiver)   0
Jarrick Williams 1 6 6.0 6  (Receiver)   0
Totals 461 2673 5.8 80 28

From that group, only Dee Hart won’t be back following an arrest and charges of giving false information and possession of marijuana.

Joining that group this year is a sensational freshman Tyren Jones, from Marietta, Ga.

A Ton Of Competitors for “Best Running Back”

So what makes this group so much more talented than last years group, or for that matter, the group that had Ingram, Richardson, Lacy and Fowler? There were times that Lacy was injured with turf toe and for most of that time there two, maybe three players at any one time that would have started on most college football teams other than Alabama.

The 2014 teams has three players who for sure could start on most other college teams, Yeldon, Drake and Henry and joining that group is an experienced and explosive and bruising running back/ H back Jalston Fowler. That’s four folks who could start on most any team and for that matter, start at Alabama without any significant drop off at all.

What some people may not realize is just how good Altee Tenpenny is and how much he’s learned from last season to now. He could very well be a starter on plenty of teams. The other surprise for even Alabama fans may be when they see freshman Tyren Jones is capable of doing.

But not counting Jones as a starter on another team, this Alabama team has up to five running backs who could and would start on many other teams and could and  may carry the load on this Alabama team without much if any drop off from one to another.

Points to Argue Over

Question : If you go by just yards per carry, why isn’t Henry the clean starter?

Answer: Henry got a lot of yardage in “Garbage Time” against tired defenders, but no one can deny that he could still have higher yards per carry than either Yeldon or Drake. Henry himself concedes he still has a lot to learn and in high school, he never had to worry about mundane tasks like picking up blockers and protecting a quarterback and dropping into position to be a safety valve for a quarterback under pressure. Still, with a year under his belt, he may be ready to prove that he’s further along than most think at those “other” duties.

Question: If Drake beats Yeldon in every game in yards per carry and yards per catch, why hasn’t he beaten out Yeldon for a starting job?

Answer: Yeldon has 20 more pounds and one more inch in height over Drake and in Alabama’s ground pound offense, that extra muscle provides a better blocking back and a frame better suited to “muscle out” that extra yard when needed. But that’s not the answer with weight.

The real answer is that Drake has been suspended for a game in each of the past two seasons for disciplinary reasons and that it’s hard to climb out of Saban’s dog house quickly and the fact that he had ball security issues. This year Drake says he’s dedicated himself to hard work and keeping his nose clean and his hands on the ball.

But Drake’s real salvation may be Lane Kiffin, who was as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning to see the weapons he could bring to bear as offensive coordinator. In Kiffin’s offense, (still a big secret for the most part) one thing is clear. Kiffin loves the lighter, faster, more explosive backs like Drake to provide a lightning bolt when he needs it.

If you remember anything about Lane Kiffin’s offensive mindset, think about how he used players like Reggie Bush for example, who Drake could very well mimic in a Kiffin offense.

Indeed, Kiffin could be the best thing to happen to Drake, provided he does his part to solve his past issues.

Question: Why doesn’t Alabama use Jalston Fowler more? Is there anything he hasn’t proven he can do?

Answer: Just depth. While Fowler doesn’t look like your typical running back, he has in fact proven that when given the chance, he can carry the ball as well as any of the running backs on the team. He’s just buried in one of the deepest running back depth charts year after year.

But again, in Kiffin’s offense, you may see him a little more as an H back and even as a tight end. Fowler has the soft hands of the best receiver, a quick burst of speed like the best running back and the bruising “Get That Extra Yardage” running style of a killer fullback.

Should Kiffin toy with the idea of an I formation, Fowler could give opposing teams nightmares.

Question: Is Altee Tenpenny the next big thing after the folks ahead of him are gone?

Answer: Those close to the program see very similar style and body builds of Tenpenny, who is 6’0” and about 220 pounds to Eddie Lacy, who was  6’0” – 220 pounds and Trent Richardson who was 5’11” and 220 pounds in his sophomore year too. He has that same ability to be a pounding running back with flash and slash ability like those other running backs just mentioned.

Folks will get a little glimpse of him this year for sure and when you see him explode, you won’t be surprised after reading this.

Question: Why doesn’t Saban split the running back carries more equally among the running backs?

That is the 64 dollar question for most fans, but last season it was the ball security issues of Drake, (and dog house issues), the inexperience of Henry and the past injuries of Dee Hart.

But for those who think that last year was out of the norm, the following stats show it isn’t all that out of the normal when it comes to how a Nick Saban team distributes the running back carries to the number two back.

2009

Mark Ingram 271 carries

Trent Richardson 145 carries or 34% of their combined carries

2010

Mark Ingram 152 carries

Trent Richardson 112 carries or 43% of their combined carries

2011

Trent Richardson 283 carries

Eddie Lacy 93 carries or 25% of their combined carries

2012

Eddie Lacy 204 carries

T.J. Yeldon 175 carries or 46% of their combined carries

2013

T.J. Yeldon 207 carries

Kenyan Drake 92 carries or 31% of their total carries

So you can see that last year’s totals were not really all that out of the normal realm of splits.

The Most Important Stat For The Running Backs This Season

For Alabama running backs there’s one mission whether done individually or collectively. If you look at the years when the Crimson Tide were national champions, they averaged as a team at least 214 rushing yards per game. It did not hit those numbers in 2010, when it totaled only 183 and 2013, when it’s tally per game was only 205.5 yards a game.

While you may think the years were close enough, close enough didn’t do it. This season the running backs are seasoned, the offensive line has better communication and the great stable of receivers will keep any team from keying solely on the run no matter who starts at quarterback.

What was the high water rushing marks since the first championship year under Saban? 2009’s total was 215 yards per game, 2011 was 214.5 yards per game and the 2012 year was 226.5.

Can this bunch pass that stat? That will be the question to be answered, but if any group can do this, this one seems set to do it. Will that make them the best group in Alabama’s long history of great running backs? Let the debate begin.

Larry is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in almost every college football venue. Now he primarily writes for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter

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