Many programs in college football boastfully call themselves Running Back U.
In the last decade, no team has earned that moniker more than the Alabama Crimson Tide.
During Nick Saban’s tenure, the Crimson Tide has produced two Heisman Trophy-winning running backs, two Doak Walker Award winners, and had five running backs selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. This season, it’s safe to say there are some large shoes to fill in the backfield after the departures of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake.
Despite all the talent and success the Crimson Tide has produced at the running back position, Saban and Co. find themselves in an unfamiliar predicament with little time remaining before the start of 2016. No proven options return in the backfield.
At SEC Media Days in July, Saban pointed out the key difference in the running back position compared to years past:
“This is the first time for many, many years that we have not had an experienced, talented running back who has proven his value, whether it was way back when Glen Coffee played, it was Mark Ingram. Mark Ingram came back and played with Trent Richardson. Trent Richardson played with Eddie Lacy. Eddie Lacy played with T.J. Yeldon. T.J. Yeldon played with Derrick Henry.
“We always had one of those guys coming back. This year we lost both guys in Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. This will provide opportunity, even though they are less experienced, for some other talented players to have a chance to succeed at that position.”
It’s clear that the 2016 backfield in Tuscaloosa isn’t rich in experience, but Alabama fans should rest assured that there is no shortage of talent on board.
Bo Scarbrough is expected to emerge as Alabama’s primary rusher in the upcoming season. The Tuscaloosa native came to Alabama as a five-star recruit and showed flashes of his potential in limited action a year ago. In four games, Scarbrough rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown on only 18 carries, but without a single meaningful carry to his name, Scarbrough has already drawn comparisons to last year’s Heisman winner.
Henry was physically imposing at 6-3 and 238 pounds while possessing the speed to outrun defensive backs to the end zone. Scarbrough presents the same physical threat at 6-2 and 228 pounds with similar breakaway speed.
The hype surrounding Scarbrough might have some merit, but it also isn’t reasonable to compare him to someone who ran for over 2,000 yards in 2015, especially with the questions surrounding his durability. Scarbrough has a concerning injury history that includes tears to both ACLs — one which he sustained in high school, the other during practice at Alabama.
Even if Scarbrough does have the same talent as Henry, he won’t be able to carry the same load his predecessor was given every week. Instead, Alabama will revert to the two-back system Saban’s teams have become known for in Tuscaloosa.
To complement Scarbrough in a two-back setup, the Tide will likely turn to another sophomore and former five-star recruit, Damien Harris.
Like Scarbrough, Harris only played in garbage time in the 2015 season and is all but guaranteed more responsibility in the upcoming season.
According to AL.com’s Matt Zenitz, Saban is confident that Harris will respond well to his increased role.
“I think that the experience that Damien gained last year certainly helped his maturity in terms of what he needs to do to be a productive player and how he needs to compete at this level. I think he learned a lot of those things last year,” Saban said.
With two relatively fresh faces taking over, there are plenty of uncertainties at running back for the upcoming season. However, Saban teams are built around a punishing, downhill rushing attack. That strategy shouldn’t be expected to change in 2016, regardless of who is carrying the ball.