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Thursday, January 10, 2013
Offseason storylines: Running game

By Alex Scarborough

Editor's note: The season is over and the Alabama Crimson Tide are national champions yet again. But what happens next? TideNation examines the most pressing storylines of the offseason as the Tide gear up for another title defense.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Who would have thought that after losing Trent Richardson the Alabama running game would become more dynamic in 2012? For that matter, who would have thought that when Mark Ingram left two years ago the production on the ground would actually improve? Losing back-to-back Heisman Trophy-caliber tailbacks has done nothing to slow down the Crimson Tide. Alabama has instead improved its number of rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns in each of the last three seasons despite watching some of the best running backs in the country move on to the NFL.

T.J. Yeldon
T.J. Yeldon thrived as a freshman in Alabama coach Nick Saban's established two-back system.
"There’s a standard," UA running back Eddie Lacy said. "They left a high standard here. So coming into this season I didn’t want to shoot straight for their standard, I just decided that I would play the game that I know how to play and whatever the outcome may be, let it be what it is. It ended up pretty good and I’m pretty much up there with those guys."

Lacy and freshman phenom T.J. Yeldon not only became the first tandem of 1,000-yard tailbacks in Alabama history this season, they also established highs for Nick Saban's tenure with 3,185 yards rushing, 5.6 yards per carry and 37 touchdowns on the ground.

Saban likes to employ a two-back system and has done so since he arrived on the Tuscaloosa campus in 2007. Had it not been for season-ending injuries to Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, he might have used a rotation of four or five backs this year, counting freshman Kenyan Drake, who showed flashes of brilliance in what was mostly mop-up duty. The former Gatorade Player of the Year ran for 285 yards and five touchdowns on 42 carries. His 6.7 yards per attempt was the best among Alabama players with 20 or more carries.

With Lacy likely off to a career in the NFL, the burden will likely fall on Drake, Yeldon, Fowler and Hart to carry the load. Both Hart and Fowler are rehabilitating major knee injuries during bowl practice and could be back in time for spring practice, though in what capacity is unclear.

What is clear, however, is just how crowded the Alabama backfield is poised to become.

Five-star running back Derrick Henry, the No. 1 athlete in the ESPN 150, enrolled early and could push for playing time in his first year. The Florida native who set the high school record for career rushing yards isn't your prototypical back at 6-foot-3, but the Yulee product is nonetheless dynamic with the ball in his hands.

Another pair of four-star running backs might have their say in the running back competition as well. Tyren Jones, the No. 7 back in the country out of Georgia, and Altee Tenpenny, a top-10 back in his own right, are playmakers with the ball in their hands.

If you're doing the math at home, it's unlikely Alabama will employ seven tailbacks next year. If Blake Sims unexpectedly moved back to running back, that would add to the fray. It remains to be seen whether Tenpenny and Jones make it to campus; they could very well redshirt if they attend Alabama.

The release valve, for all the pressure packed with so many running backs on the roster, might be the position of H-back. Both Henry (6-foot-3, 243 pounds) and Fowler (6-foot-2, 242 pounds) could end up at the hybrid running back/fullback/tight end position before it's all said and done as they both possess the same blend of build and athleticism Saban covets for the position. Fowler was groomed for the position last season and had some success there before he went down early in the year.

"It’s a difficult role to find a guy who has the skill set to do it," Saban said early in the season. "We have a couple guys we’re working with, that we’re trying to develop. I think [Brad] Smelley was really kind of a special guy at that position. Kelly Johnson has done a good job because he’s tough and he’s a good athlete. We’re trying to do it some with Jalston Fowler, because he’s 250 pounds, can block, is a really good receiver, is fast, has running skills and running ability, but he’s also playing running back. Harrison Jones is working at that position. We have several guys that are working at that position and we’ve got a couple of big guys that are pretty good blocking tight ends. So do we have a specialty guy like Smelley was? Maybe not all wrapped into one."