TUSCALOOSA — Entering the season, the concern with Alabama’s backfield was that the Crimson Tide would be without an established running back. Now, as the Tide prepares to move into the offseason, the new fear is that it might have too many.
Losing Heisman winner Derrick Henry as well as Kenyan Drake to last year’s draft, Alabama opened the season with sophomores Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough as its two primary options at running back. The duo had combined for 261 yards and two touchdowns in 2015 and left Alabama head coach Nick Saban without a veteran option at the position for the first time since he took the job in 2007.
What a difference a year makes.
Harris became the 16th Alabama running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season, rushing for a team-high 1,037 yards and two touchdowns on 146 carries. Scarbrough, who suffered a fracture in his right lower leg during the loss to Clemson, wasn’t too far behind with 812 yards and 11 touchdowns on 125 carries.
Those totals were somewhat expected. The surprise came in a breakout season from true freshman Josh Jacobs, who rushed for 567 yards and four touchdowns. Fellow true freshman B.J. Emmons also showed promise, rushing for 173 yards and a touchdown before suffering a season-ending foot injury that cut his season short at seven games.
Alabama isn’t expected to lose any of its running backs to the NFL draft, when the school hosts a news conference today at noon for players who are turning pro even though they have eligibility left.
This means the Crimson Tide should enter the 2017 season with four backs who outproduced the 157 yards Harris gained in 2015, which made him the Tide’s highest returning rusher last season. All four are projected to be back and healthy next season in what will be perhaps the deepest backfield in the nation.
The giant elephant in the room is simple. How is Alabama going to get everyone the ball? Right now, that’s a problem Tide players aren’t too worried about.
“It’s not hard at all,” Harris said. “We got a bunch of great guys that are wanting to put themselves second and put the team first. That’s what we’ve done all year. We all had great plays this year, and that’s kind of what we pride ourselves on. Whenever your number is called, make sure that you are ready.”
Harris called his fellow running backs a family, stating the depth at the position allows them to push each other every day in practice and in meetings. The unit has also formed somewhat of a support group for each other, taking in younger players and making sure everyone is ready to go when they are needed.
“When I first got here, I was kind of struggling with plays,” Jacobs said. “(Alabama running back) Ronnie Clark especially came up to me and studied with me and everything. That in itself shows there’s no selfishness.”
Like Jacobs, Emmons had to deal with the difficulties of switching from high school to college ball. Coming in as the No. 2 running back in the 2016 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, Emmons said he had to change his entire mindset and perspective on things this season.
That means focusing on improvement rather than carries.
“It’s just learning from each other,” Emmons said. “Of course we compete. Everybody’s trying to be good on the team, so we compete every day. But we compete with the same mindset, to make each other better. You see one guy do one thing and you try to do it better.”
In fact, splitting carries has its advantages on the field as well. Harris led Alabama running backs with 146 carries this season, 249 less than Henry had in 2015 during his Heisman season. While Tide backs are still chomping at the bit for every snap, the extra rest ensures that Alabama is able to continually hit its competition with fresh legs.
“I kind of like not having one guy because it makes you so versatile,” Jacobs said. “Each running back kind of has their own style. With that, we are tough to defend.”
There’s a good chance Alabama’s stacked backfield gets even deeper next season, as the Tide netted the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in running back Najee Harris, who enrolled early this week. The 6-foot-2, 224-pound back is the first No. 1 overall recruit Saban has signed at Alabama and is thought to compete for instant playing time next season.
“I can’t speak for everybody else, but for me, in general, it doesn’t really change anything,” Jacobs said. “When I was coming in, I was like the most overlooked. Me just working, it’s all a work process. No matter who’s in or who isn’t, everybody’s got to work.”
While Tide running backs are quick to embrace the five-star recruit, they have one piece of advice — come in hungry and come ready to work.
“He’s got to come in and work like we do,” Emmons said. “He’s got to put pads on the same way we did. Nothing’s given, you got to take everything and work for it. It’s not about who’s coming in next or who’s already here, it’s about what you can provide for the team.”