July 1, 2016
Alabama has beefed up its resume for the “Running Back U” moniker during head coach Nick Saban‘s first nine years in Tuscaloosa, producing two of the three running backs to win the Heisman Trophy this century (Mark Ingram in 2009 and Derrick Henry in 2015) and six different players who have topped the 1,000-yard mark.
A seventh could be quite a challenge for Saban and third-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
The Crimson Tide enter the 2016 campaign with the most inexperienced running back corps that it has ever had under Saban’s watch, with Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris serving as the two likely contenders to earn first-team carries.
The Scarbrough-Harris combination amassed just 261 total rushing yards a year ago. The only other time Alabama’s top two returning rushers combined for less than 1,000 rushing yards in the previous season under Saban’s watch was in his first year, when Jimmy Johns and Roy Upchurch combined for just 330 under former head coach Mike Shula in 2006.
In the past, Saban has done a fantastic job of mixing in a “1A” and a “1B” back throughout the season, while also getting another player—typically a youngster—significant carries as a primary No. 2.
That didn’t happen last year.
Scarbrough was suspended early in the year and was coming off of a torn ACL suffered last spring, while Harris wasn’t ready to handle the load. Veteran speedster Kenyan Drake was Henry’s primary backup as he evolved into the first true work horse Saban has used in Tuscaloosa.
Even when Ingram won the Heisman Trophy in 2009, then-true freshman Trent Richardson racked up 749 yards and eight touchdowns in a reserve role that properly prepared him for more responsibility in 2010 and beyond.
Can Scarbrough and Harris handle it?
Las Vegas certainly thinks Scarbrough is ready.
The 6’2″, 230-pound local Tuscaloosa product is as close to a Henry clone as there is on campus, and has 20/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy, according to Oddschecker.
Like Henry, Scarbrough is a power rusher who might not have the pure strength as Henry, but he has a bit more wiggle in space than the single-season SEC record holder for rushing yards.
Harris, a 5’11”, 214-pounder, struggled with the transition to the college game as a true freshman, but reeled off 114 yards on 20 carries in the Alabama spring game. That was the first glimpse Alabama fans got of the former 5-star prospect from Kentucky.
“Damien Harris had a really nice day,” Saban said according to RollTide.com. “[He] looked quick and explosive and he did a really nice job.”
While the two sophomores are talented, things are quite different this year than in past seasons.
On top of running back questions, Alabama is saddled with a quarterback battle for the third straight year, lost an ultra-important piece of the offensive line in center Ryan Kelly and last year’s line—which somehow won the Joe Moore Award, given to the best unit in the country—struggled mightily at times, including the first half against Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
What’s more, the neutral site opener against USC and road trip to Ole Miss—which holds a two-game winning streak over the Tide—in Week 3 present the toughest early-season stretch Saban has had during his nine years running the program.
With that said, Alabama will be fine.
There’s a reason Harris and Scarbrough were both highly-touted running backs coming out of high school. They are both incredibly talented and, as Saban said in 2014 according to Michael Casagrande of AL.com, adjusting to the college game as a running back is easier than most positions:
I always say that the two positions I feel like a guy can play at more quickly than others is probably running back and receiver. I mean, I think if you’re an instinctive player and you have the skill set there’s not a whole lot to learn. And those are the two positions that, yeah, technique’s important, running the plays right is important, but no coach teaches you how to make a guy miss.
It won’t look the same in 2016 as it did in 2015 at the running back position at Alabama. After his work as a true freshman in 2013 and team-high 990 rushing yards in 2014, the college football world knew Henry was ready for superstardom entering the 2015 season.
It’s more of a “confident hope” in Scarbrough and Harris entering 2016, which will likely resemble typical Alabama production at the running back position with a “1A” and “1B” rotating to keep each other fresh and take advantage of specific situations that call for more power (Scarbrough) or speed (Harris).
Alabama will be fine during its quest to replace Henry. It just will look a little different than it did last year.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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