TUSCALOOSA — The names read off like who’s who of the best to have played at Alabama.
Glen Coffee. Mark Ingram. Trent Richardson. Eddie Lacy. T.J. Yeldon. Kenyan Drake. Derrick Henry.
It’s also every Crimson Tide running back to be taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft over the last decade, a list Alabama tailbacks Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs appear poised to join later this month.
And much like three years ago when Drake and Henry left as part of the same draft class, the departures of Harris and Jacobs leave a considerable void in the Tide backfield. Even so, it's one one head coach Nick Saban is confident can be filled by a pair of talented junior running backs who have patiently waited for their turn just like those before them: Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr.
“I really feel like Najee and B-Rob are both really good players. I think both of them have got a significant amount of experience in the past. I think they’re ready to take the next step in terms of making a really significant contribution,” Saban said Wednesday. “They both had really good springs. … I’m really satisfied with those two guys.”
Najee Harris, the 6-foot-2, 227-pound former five-star product from Antioch, Calif., would seem to be the favorite to handle early-down opportunities after finishing second on the team in rushing last season with 783 yards and four touchdowns in 2018. For his career, Harris is averaging 6.48 yards a carry and is a big-play threat every time he touches the ball given his affinity for hurdling defenders.
Robinson, a Tuscaloosa-native who carries a similar 6-1 and 226-pound build, is more of a downhill, straight-line runner who could be vital in short-yardage and goal-line situations, and should see a boost in responsibility after rushing for 437 yards on 87 carries during his first two seasons.
But beyond Harris and Robinson is a question mark at this point in spring, with Alabama once again expected to utilize a three- or four-person committee as it relies on its ground game more this coming season given its potential shift under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
That’s where other options come into play for carries, including redshirt freshman Jerome Ford, who Saban says “has shown some flashes” this spring after being the lone scholarship tailback in the 2018 signing class, and redshirt sophomore receiver-turned-tailback Chadarius Townsend. He is a wild card at the position, having showed natural talent and versatility after moving to defensive back last season when depth was a concern there.
Of course, as Saban made it clear Wednesday, there’s also a couple of talented freshmen on their way in five-star IMG Academy product Trey Sanders, the nation’s No. 1 running back according to the 247 composite rankings, and four-star Washington D.C.-product Keilan Robinson, a 5-9 scatback ranked as the nation’s No. 15 running back.
While Robinson could eventually fit a similar mold to what the outgoing Jacobs did last season, Sanders is a serious threat to make an immediate impact and has already touted his own Heisman Trophy candidacy shortly after pledging to the Tide during the early National Signing Day in December.
“We have had a lot of diversity at running back, but most of the time, there has been a young player that contributes to that (is) almost always a freshman,” Saban said. “Mark Ingram was a freshman when Glenn Coffee was here. Trent Richardson played some when he was a freshman and Mark was the player.
"And if you just go through the history of all of the guys — I think Eddie Lacy was probably the only guy that didn’t play quite a bit when he was a freshman, and that’s because he was a late qualifier and got here late in the summer. So, I would expect that we get some help from that group from some young players, as well.”
Yet, while Saban is confident at least one of Alabama’s younger backs will rise to the challenge and compliment Najee Harris and Robinson this upcoming, the uncertainty of who that will be remains a little unsettling at this point of spring practice.
“I would feel a little more comfortable if we had a few more guys that showed that they can play with the consistency and performance that can add even more depth at that position,” Saban said.