- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Was he suspended? Did he fall on the depth chart? Did he simply miss the flight? The talented sophomore and former Gatorade Player of the Year from Georgia seemed the incumbent No. 2 tailback heading into preseason camp, squarely behind another second-year player, T.J. Yeldon. The two, it was thought, would continue the one-two punch at tailback to which Alabama fans had become accustomed.
But Drake was nowhere to be found in the Georgia Dome when the Tide beat the Hokies, 35-10, on Aug. 31. He wouldn't show up until two weeks later.
Nick Saban has enjoyed playing personnel matters close to the vest as a head coach, Drake's being no different. Saban, now in his seventh season leading Alabama, never announced why Drake wasn't on the depth chart when it was first released on Aug. 28. Drake, the team's third-leading rusher last season and arguably its most explosive back, wasn't wearing his No. 17 jersey in practices. Instead, he ran with the scout team, simulating opponents.
Saban, when asked, said matter-of-factly, "We had to get other guys ready to do things, and they actually did well enough." In other words, Drake was in the doghouse.
On a teleconference a week later, Saban said Drake was going to play against the then sixth-ranked Texas A&M Aggies. He was "ready to go," but he'd have to outplay those ahead of him.
Against the Aggies in College Station, Drake did exactly that. In fact, he wound up the team's second-leading rusher in what proved to be a dramatic 49-42 victory for Alabama. He rushed for 50 yards and a touchdown that day, providing a much-needed spark. And despite a poor performance a week later against Colorado State -- a game no one in crimson ran the ball especially well -- he has continued to be the clear No. 2 back behind Yeldon, racking up 349 yards and five touchdowns over the last four games.
The "why" of Drake's early season absence has gone by the wayside. All that seems to matter now is that he's back and Alabama is better off for it. The offense that has been known for showcasing two premier tailbacks at a time -- Eddie Lacy and Yeldon last year, Lacy and Trent Richardson the year before that, Richardson and Mark Ingram the year before that -- suddenly has the one-two punch it has been missing. Since Drake returned after Week 1, Alabama has ranked 19th in the country in rushing yards per game (231.0) and second in yards per rush (6.63).
"They complement each other and both guys have a little different running style," Saban said. "I think it's a real change of pace that they both present to the defensive players. Both guys have been productive for us and both guys have done a good job."
"It’s a great combination with two different backs, two styles of runs," UA wideout Christion Jones said. "T.J. is a powerful and physical back. Drake is physical but quicker, faster on the perimeter."
Where Yeldon is the more between-the-tackles, traditional back, Drake is all speed all the time. He's a big play waiting to happen. He has moves and vision, but the thing he's most known for in his ability to find daylight and accelerate through it. He and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota are the only two players in the country to reach 17 rushes of 10-plus yards in fewer than 70 attempts. In fact, neither has carried the ball 50 times this season.
If Drake gets to the edge of the defense, there's no tracking him down. Last weekend against Arkansas he had two rushes of 20 or more yards. It was as if went from zero to 60 mph in the blink of an eye on his 46-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, bouncing off a teammate at the line of scrimmage before accelerating in a hurry. He cut outside, made one defender miss and took the sideline the rest of the way for the score.
Drake, who acknowledged after the game that acceleration is one of his biggest assets, said it helps to "start up, and start up quick." It was his first time speaking with the media in Tuscaloosa since joining Alabama last season. And despite the early season turmoil, he seemed pleased with his role on the team, saying he and Yeldon were good friends who enjoyed working with one another.
"We support each other when we go in and do well. We pick each other up when we do badly," he said. "Everybody loves the connection we have. We just go out there and do our best.
"We push each other a lot. We're both competitive."
Drake came to Alabama to show he was a complete tailback. What he said he had to learn most, though, was how to put bad plays behind him and focus on what's next. It seemed fitting in the context of his season, overcoming an early absence to become a major contributor.
It couldn't have been easy for a young player with star potential, but he has learned that there's more to the game than going fast. Sometimes you have to be told to wait.
"Being here they teach you about learning the details and handling yourself accordingly," Drake said. "I feel like at the end of the day I've improved on the mental aspect of my game."