Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
Four-star running back Josh Jacobs showed how valuable he would be to the University of Alabama football program last season, despite emerging late onto the recruiting scene in 2016.
Jacobs, a native of Tulsa, Okla., was one of four 500-plus yard rushers, totaling 567 yards and four touchdowns on 85 carries. The product of McLain High School had an exceptional skill set in rushing, pass-catching and pass-blocking that started in fall practice. Though Jalen Hurts saw it on Saturdays in the fall at Bryant-Denny Stadium; it was a walk-on quarterback who first noticed the drive and determination of an overlooked warrior.
“He (Jacobs) was very special last season,” ex-Tide quarterback Josh Palet said. “He came in with low expectations and though all the talk was about B.J. (Emmons) at first, he showed how undervalued he was.”
After scratching out time against Southern California and Western Kentucky, Jacobs’ first taste of progress came on the road in week three against the Mississippi Rebels. He chimed in with 33 yards rushing on three carries, while aiding Hurts in the pocket to find open wide receivers.
“He really started to turn heads as a blocker,” Palet said on Jacobs. “He’s a physical guy and in practice, he was just laying people out. That’s why Alabama had him on special teams too.”
His blocking was strong against the Rebels; however, the next two weeks showcased Jacobs’ acceleration in open space and toughness as a one-cut runner. With Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough banged up, head coach Nick Saban and running backs coach Burton Burns turned to Jacobs to set the tone on offense for the Tide.
Jacobs led the team in rushing against Kent State—11 carries, 97 yards, two touchdowns—and earned his first 100-yard outing versus the Kentucky Wildcats at home (16 carries, 100 yards, touchdown).
Following both meetings, he received offensive player of the week honors from the Tide’s coaching staff.
“The games against Kent State and Kentucky were my favorites when it comes to Jacobs,” Palet said. “I just remember those being the match-ups when everyone knew that he was for real.”
Alabama’s 51-3 demolition of Mississippi State at home did not happen without a dose of Jacobs in certain spots. He ripped through the Bulldogs’ defensive front for 89 yards on nine carries, including three runs that resulted in first downs. His soft hands and elusiveness navigated him to 34 receiving yards on three catches, with two receptions moving the chains for first downs.
“He’s the hardest guy to tackle in open space,” Palet said.
During the 2016 Southeastern Conference title game against Florida, Tide fans saw a different element from Jacobs. All players who desire to shine in a crimson and white uniform must first prove themselves worthy on special teams, in either returning or covering kicks. The 5-foot-10, 204-pounder was in the right spot and at the right time, when he caught a blocked punt off the foot of Florida’s Johnny Townsend in the first half.
He returned it 27 yards for a touchdown, giving Alabama its second non-offensive score of the game and 14th on the year. Jacobs received weekly honors from the coaching staff for a third time and in this situation, it was his performance on special teams that got it done. Regardless of being viewed as the third back on the roster, Jacobs poster a higher yards per carry average than Scarbrough (6.7 to 6.50).
Per Palet, he expects the rising sophomore to emerge in more ways than one.
“I think he’ll take the next step forward by showing that he’s a great blocker and reliable runner, when the team needs him to be,” he said. “Even though he has the toughest competition in the country at running back.”
He came six seconds from winning a national title a season ago. The Tide has recruited more talent in five-star Najee Harris and four-star Brian Robinson, but keep all tabs on Jacobs in the upcoming fall.