Ever heard the saying, "Ridden like a rented mule?" Learn the meaning here.
Alabama’s Running Backs Avoid the “Marcus Lattimore” Syndrome
By: Larry Burton
Just a short few years ago, in 2010, a young freshman burst on the college football world and one of the best running backs in the country let his light shine in his very first season as a freshman. That man’s name was Marcus Lattimore.
In his freshman season in 2010, he rushed for 1197 yards, had 17 touchdowns, 29 receptions for 412 yards and another two touchdowns. He was the SEC freshman running back of the year. In that year, he also endured two injuries that kept him from one part of one game, forced to sit out the Vanderbilt game with injury and then played very little in the bowl game after getting hurt early in the bowl game.
In 2011, he started the season as the leading Heisman Trophy candidate, but a knee injury kept him from accumulating enough game time to qualify for national rankings. He played in just seven games, some of those in just limited action but still, it was thought that he would come back the next season and be the man everyone expected him to be.
His 2011 rushing yardage dropped to 818 yards, 379 yards less than the year before.
But in 2012, he had a list of other injuries that included yet another season ending knee injury in October in a game against rival Tennessee, Lattimore had the injury that ultimately ended all his football dreams. His right knee was wrecked with a dislocation that tore every major ligament and also did acute nerve damage.
His 2012 rushing yardage dropped to 662, almost half his first season yardage as a freshman.
Though it was repaired by one of the nation’s best surgeons, Dr. James Andrews and NFL teams still wanted to believe that the big man could recover based on him being drafted in the fourth round by the San Fransico 49’ers. But Lattimore never played in a single game in the NFL and today his dreams of being a Sunday player have been scrubbed.
Lattimore started as a freshman and with all due respect to the other running backs at South Carolina at that time, Lattimore was the only stallion in the stable and they rode him like a rented mule. This is nothing new in football, having a player simply run into the ground. But it’s something I have come to call the “Marcus Lattimore Syndrome”.
Say what you will about Nick Saban. If you like him or hate him you have to respect him as a coach. Yes he’s a great game day coach and yes he’s a great talent developer, motivator and more. But what Nick Saban may actually do best is recruit and stockpile great talent.
For example, let’s use the recent running backs at Alabama as an example. With the rare exception of Mark Ingram who started for just two years, most have one year as the marquee starting player and then it’s off to the NFL for a fat contract and the life they always dreamed of. Even while Ingram may have started for two years, for both those years however, he was not the only stallion in the stable and didn’t carry the ball much more than the other running backs that shared playing time.
He, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and now T.J. Yeldon are all playing in the NFL, all with healthy bodies and a bright future still ahead of them.
But that’s just the running back position.
This year you could take a look at defensive linemen and linebackers and I mean take a long hard look and you won’t see much if any difference between the first, second and even players that may be considered third team. Saban does not ride his players into the dust for a simple reason. He doesn’t need to do that with all that talent he collects.
And it’s become a recruiting tool to attract even more top talent.
When Saban enters the home of a top prospect, the recruit and his parents listening closely to his every word, Saban can say, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith, your son tells me that another school has said that if he signs with them that he would almost certainly start as a freshman and become an overnight sensation. But I don’t think in his best and long term interest. I think he needs a season or so to build his skills to the collegiate level, build his body to absorb the collegiate level hits he’s going to take. But most of all, this is Alabama and if I don’t have someone more ready that an 18 year old high school young man at this position, then I haven’t been doing my job. He’ll more than likely get some playing time on special teams and get a few opportunities in some games to develop, but I’m looking long term toward how you’ll look and be able to perform when it matters most during your junior and senior years.”
Now if that’s not a sales pitch, you don’t understand recruiting from what a mother and father want to hear or for that matter, what every young man with an NFL dream wants to hear. In essence Saban’s saying he won’t let the boy get ground up and rode like a rented mule and be too worn out and be damaged goods by the time the NFL could come calling.
He can say with pride and accuracy that Eddie Lacy only started one year at running back, but he was the NFL rookie running back of the year. That’s because Alabama is on TV almost every game and you only have to be a star your junior or senior year to cash in on that NFL dream. And that’s not speculation at Alabama, that’s fact, that’s history.
So while some schools have players that have to play all the time, every game from their freshman season to their final game, playing hurt because there isn’t a good enough backup to take up the slack, that just won’t happen in Tuscaloosa.
Sure, players at Alabama get hurt, they do everywhere, after all, it is a violent game played by strong, fast man. But they won’t get hurt year after year, season after season and get ground into the dust like a rented mule.
And you have Nick Saban to thank for it.