- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban is no stranger to managing a crowded backfield. Since he took over as head coach at Alabama in 2007, he's featured two lead tailbacks and a supporting cast of one or more every season. Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy were the players fans across the country knew best, but they wouldn't have been as explosive as they were without help from the bench.
T.J. Yeldon understands that. The soft-spoken sophomore backed up Lacy in 2012 and was able to make a name for himself in the process, becoming the first UA tailback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his freshman season. All told the former four-star prospect from South Alabama ran for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns on 12.5 carries per game.
"He's bright. He learns well. He understands the offense. He's a good blocker. He's a complete player. He's a really good receiver, and he's a good runner," Saban said of his Pre-Season All-SEC back. "And he understands what he's doing, and he's played enough that his knowledge and experience certainly helps him with the rest of the players."
Yeldon and his presumptive backup, Kenyan Drake, are givens, but the rest of the backfield is where things get sticky. Where will the rest of the Tide's cast of characters fit in?
In addition to veterans Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, Alabama signed four tailbacks in the 2013 class. Each rookie brings something different to the table: Derrick Henry is a physical freak at 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, Altee Tenpenny is a bruiser with good lower body strength, Alvin Kamara is a scat-back type with good catching ability and Tyren Jones is a somewhere in the middle, a power back with good shiftiness and explosion. And according to those inside the program, all four not only are on track to play early, but are expected to do so this season.
Saban hinted as much at his signing day press conference when he scoffed at the notion of a "stacked" running back corps. He said then that good depth at the position meant five really good players, with three playing a lot. With Fowler practicing at H-back and Hart a question mark given his health concerns, the numbers add up.
On Tuesday, Saban updated the situation at tailback and praised his freshmen in the process.
"I think all the running backs are really good, the freshmen, and I think they'll all be able to contribute," he said. "Some of the guys who are showing a little bit more maturity and learning and being able to sustain performance, which I think is going to help their development and it's going to help them be able to contribute and play.
"Derrick Henry being here in the spring obviously helps his (chances). Altee Tenpenny seems like he's a guy that seems to get it and is pretty well-rounded and has been able to grasp things and sort of learn quickly. But the other guys have done a good job as well."
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said less than two weeks earlier that the most important thing for the young backs such as Tenpenny and Henry is to get the system down pat. Then and only then can they move on to the idea of playing time.
"So that's the biggest thing is to teach them once again the big picture -- how you get lined up, what kind of stance, what kind of footwork. Everybody focuses on the running back position about what the player does with the ball in their hands. There's so much more to it," he said. "You start talking about protection-type things. What we see from our defense every day, the complexity of blitzes and those type of things, it's very important that those guys grow in that area.
"[The coaches are] very, very pleased with the depth that we have there, really good players. Jalston Fowler, you know he missed most of last season. Dee Hart coming back off of injury. Kenyan Drake returning. And then we talked about Derrick and the young guys that are coming in. So we've got a lot of depth there."
Yeldon told reporters on Tuesday that the young backs have been leaning on him for advice while they learn the ropes during fall camp. Funny because it was only a year ago that he was doing the same thing, splitting carries as he studied under Lacy. Now it's Yeldon leading the charge as he wonders who will split carries with him as the team's feature back.
But who looks best so far? Yeldon can't tell.
"Every guy is different," he said. "They have different running abilities. All of them are looking pretty good."
4dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough