TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For more than a decade, running back is a position that Alabama hasn’t had to worry much about.
Being the only college football program to have a Heisman Trophy winner at the position makes the Crimson Tide a popular destination for prize prospects. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re simply going to be handed the ball a lot when they get there.
Consequently, Najee Harris has been chomping at the bit to show what he can do as Alabama’s premiere running back. He’ll finally get his chance this season.
“Najee is a very talented player,” Nick Saban said. “He's got great size and speed. He's very effective when he has the ball in his hand, and he's a complete player in terms of being a good receiver as well as a good runner with the ball.
“I think the improvement that he's made has come because of the experience that he's gained as a player, and he's a more complete player now.”
Three years ago, Harris was considered the No. 1 recruit in the nation by Rivals, Scout and PrepStar, and with a 5-star rating was considered a can’t-miss prospect for the Crimson Tide. At Antioch High School he finished with 7,948 career rushing yards, the fourth-most in California high school football history, capped by 2,776 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns during his senior season.
Since then he’s played for Alabama, but has also had to wait his turn. As a freshman in 2017 he had just 61 carries, and last season had 117 while tallying 783 rushing yards.
For a comparison, Mark Ingram Jr., who won the Heisman Trophy in 2009, had 143 carries as a freshman and punched in 12 touchdowns. The 2015 winner Derrick Henry had just 35 attempts during his initial season with the Crimson Tide, and didn’t top 1,000 rushing yards until his junior year.
Even though Alabama had two running backs selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, Harris led the Crimson Tide in yards per carry at 6.7. Roughly 15 percent of his attempts (17) went for 12-plus yards and 32 percent of them (37) resulted in a first down or a touchdown.
“I've seen Najee make tremendous improvements in the pass protection,” former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said before departing to become the head coach at Maryland. “I've seen him become a better receiver out of the backfield.
“He's a guy that has a knack for making people miss, unblocked guys miss in the hole. I think he'll be a big-time player here.”
However, the Crimson Tide averaged just 5.2 rushing yards per carry last season, which was down from the previous seasons, so it’ll be interesting to see if it goes with having more of a featured back with Brian Robinson Jr. spelling Harris when necessary.
Robinson went from 24 carries for 165 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman to 63 attempts for 272 yards and two touchdowns last season. That he was one of the deep men on kickoff returns shows how much the coaches trust him.
“Those guys have been great,” Saban said about his top two running backs during the spring. “I mean they had good offseason programs. They’ve practiced really well. I think they’ve had enough playing experience that they understand what it takes to be successful in terms of their job and being responsible and accountable to get it done, whatever it is. Whether it’s pass-blocking during a passing play, running a route, catching the ball, being an effective runner.
“Past those two guys is where we really want to try to develop some depth.”
That begins with second-year player Jerome Ford, who through no fault of his own sort of became the forgotten man last season because there’s only one ball to go around during games. The then-freshman had seven carries for 37 yards in four games, but will be more in the mix.
After redshirting, Chadarius Townsend had spent most of his time at wide receiver and with special teams, but showed some promise at running back during the spring. He might be more of a third-down back this season, but it wasn’t long ago that people were saying the same thing about first-round draft pick Josh Jacobs.
The other players to watch are newcomers Trey Sanders and Kellen Robinson.
Sanders, a consensus 5-star prospect turned heads when he said: "As a freshman at Alabama, I do plan on winning the Heisman. If I come short, I will be a finalist.”
Robinson was a consensus 4-star talent out of the Washington D.C. area who showed considerable patience during the recruiting process. It's a trait that could really benefit him at Alabama, where maturity has its obvious benefits.
Saban made it clear that he’s leaving the door open for either incoming player to get on the field, but only if they earn it under the direction of new running back coach Charles Huff.
“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, almost always a freshman,” the coach 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.”
This is the second story in a summer series previewing the 2019 Crimson Tide: