Thursday, April 12, 2012

Profilin' the Tide: Tailbacks

Previously: General Offensive Preview, Offensive Line

While I would argue that an arthritic turtle could probably run for 1,000 yards behind the 2012 Alabama offensive line, we will never get to see such a thing come to fruition. This is upsetting because it means that Alabama will trot out a human being at the tailback position, and that is decidedly less novel/adventurous (but, then again, this is the Alabama offense we're talking about). But, believe you me, if Nick Saban could find a loophole allowing him to play a Chelydra serpentina at the position, oh he'd exploit it; ain't gotta give a turtle no scholarship. He might not be Forrest Gump but nobody ever questioned the ol' walk-on Snapping Turtle's want to.
Eddie Lacy against Michigan State (via Jacob Lanston/Orlando Sentinel
ANYWAY. Let's talk about the guys that will be replacing bench press extraordinaire--who, by virtue of his S&C in Tuscaloosa not allowing him to bench over 450 pounds or so, allows the space-time continuum to remain intact--Trent Richardson. The Tide are not afraid to use multiple backs, even when a talent like Ingram or Richardson occupy the starting role, and, as such, this will be be a tailback by committee type situation, not unlike 1997 Michigan. Part of this is due to the fact that Alabama has had unbelievable depth and quality, kind of like that one time when USC seemingly had 12 5-star tailbacks on their roster.

Alabama has been able to offer carries to Mark Ingram in 2008 when he was behind starter Glen Coffee, for Trent Richardson the next two years behind Ingram, and last year, when guys like Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler found a decent amount of carries come their way, considering that the starter was of course a Heisman finalist. The other logical explanation is that, well, Alabama has had the luxury of giving out a lot of garbage time carries the last few years.

The Starters 
The guy primed to get the most carries in 2012 is Eddie Lacy, who will be a redshirt junior, is a solid all-around back at 6'0'' 220. He racked up 684 yards on 84 carries as Richardson's understudy in 2011. If you're keeping track at home, that's good for 7.5 ypc. Obviously, it's safe to assume that that will come down as he becomes "the guy" instead of "the guy that comes in after Trent "Destroyer of Worlds" Richardson has bludgeoned the opposing defense to death." There's no reason to assume that he won't be at minimum a competent back.

Based on what I've seen of him thus far, there's absolutely no chance he can replicate the unadulterated power that Richardson brought on every run, but that's okay because I'm fairly certain very few people can. He also doesn't necessarily have an overwhelming burst, but I'm not an NFL scout and some of the holes that he ran through last year could've quite literally allowed an actual elephant the space to pass through.

However, he's got some nifty moves when he has to stop at or before the line of scrimmage, particularly a pretty great spin move. I have a feeling this is entirely wrong comparison, but his build and slashing running style sort of reminds me of Ryan Grant (they are almost quite literally the same height and weight).

With that said, Lacy can acquit himself well by doing one thing that Richardson was pretty good at: pass catching. Alabama threw to Richardson a decent bit last year (29 receptions, 338 yards), especially against the stingier defenses on the schedule. Richardson had 4 against PSU and 5 against LSU in The One That Didn't Count. Does Lacy have similar hands, and can he be the same dynamic playmaker that Richardson was with McCarron slinging him passes to the flat with Jimmy Clausen-esque poise? It's hard to say at this point, but Lacy does have a few grabs to his name. In 2011, Lacy reeled in 11 receptions for 131 yards, with a long of 48 yards against Kent State.

Unfortunately for Alabama (and for Michigan fans looking to see him in action this Saturday during the A-Day game), Lacy is out of commission this spring with a foot injury. In his stead, we will see prototypical rhinoceros-back Jalston Fowler as the main guy this Saturday.

Pretty sure this is Jalston Fowler. 

Fowler is 6'1'' 246, meaning it is time for some cliches. He's a north-south guy, he always falls forward, he's hard-nosed between the tackles runner, he looks to initiate contact, HERP DERP FOOTBAW, etc. You get the picture. Of course, a back such as this is nicknamed "Nudie."

Fowler has zero receptions in his career, of course. When he is in the game, odds are Michigan will know what's about to happen because it's a short yardage situation. Although Fowler is indeed a large man, it is important to note that 39 of his 56 carries came when Alabama was up by 22 points or more, typically after Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy had done their damage. Also, while Fowler is naturally not the fleetest of foot, he did have a 69-yard TD run against Ole Miss last year (I know, it's Ole Miss, but they're apparently in the SEC) and a red zone TD against Auburn in which he got the corner. Here's the Ole Miss score, with Fowler looking terrifyingly similar to a poor man's Beanie Wells (video in general is worth watching if you want to quickly familiarize yourself with what their running style looks like; again, level of resistance caveats re: the competition apply):

Similar to my comments about Lacy, but being bumped up a slot will likely see his effectiveness decrease as he enters the game earlier on than he did in 2011 (i.e. before the D is already been mentally and physically destroyed).

Still, behind that OL, this is not a person you want to have to tackle. He's probably not going to bust any long runs against us the Ole Miss one unless something catastrophic has happened, but he's not exactly slow for his size, and he seems to be surprisingly nimble on his feet. At the same time, I think this is just the sort of back that guys like Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan want to meet in the hole. After that sentence, all I have to say is CAN I GET A "FOOTBAW!"

The Replacements
As mentioned already, it gets a little murky here because Alabama figures to be in position to play multiple guys. If we're using the 1997 Michigan tailback corps as a point of reference, with Fowler as Howard/Floyd (really, they're both Chris, and in my mind they were essentially the same) and Lacy as A-Train, then our old friend Dee Hart is perhaps primed to be the Clarence Williams of the bunch. Hart is of course coming off of a knee injury that forced him to miss all of 2011, but he's participating in spring ball, albeit with a brace. We're all familiar with his skill set, and it seems that he's been taking advantage of Lacy's absence in an attempt to find himself a role in this year's offense, one which you would think doesn't suit a back of Hart's stature. However, he could carve out a very successful niche as the occasional spark plug/change of pace guy, as I don't think Lacy (and definitely not Fowler) provide the

There's also T.J. Yeldon, who switched his commitment from Auburn to Alabama, just like LT Cyrus Kouandjio. He was a Rivals 5-star (#2 RB, #12 overall, #2 in Alabama) as well as Mr. Football in Alabama, which is highly impressive considering he beat out FSU signee Jameis Winston for the honor. Yeldon is in Tuscaloosa for spring ball, and it's sort of terrifying to think that a guy that would start, right now, at a lot of places might be Alabama's fourth stringer this year.

Blake Sims is another guy in the mix, although he has been limited by injuries this spring. He seems to be attempting to get back into the swing of things, but, based on this recent practice footage, he does not seem like a guy that's ready for full contact this Saturday. It will be difficult for Sims to get much run this year, but he did see some time last season. He was a 4-star athlete out of high school, and was apparently being recruited by Tony Dews.

General Spring Minutiae/Encomium That Results In A "Bristling" Saban
With Sims and Lacy out, that leaves Hart, Yeldon, and Fowler as the primary participants during spring ball. Most talk re: Fowler centers around how huge he is and difficult to tackle. According to Adrian Hubbard, a potential starting linebacker:
"It's like trying to tackle a big train."
Fun times. In last Friday's scrimmage (the second one this spring), Fowler carried the ball 22 times, going for 151 yards and 3 touchdowns (although 68 of those yards came in a "situational drill"). However, the first scrimmage was decidedly less of a success for the ground game, as Fowler, Yeldon, Hart, and walk-on Ben Howell combined for 107 yards on 38 carries (2.8 ypc). Individual stats are available here at the athletics website. Again, it's spring ball, and here's a grain of salt for you.

I've also read various bits of Hart impressing, which could just be standard fare Internet hype. Mike Cox is generally all you have to say to anyone that wants to extrapolate grand things from spring ball.

Saban on T.J. Yeldon's performance in the second scrimmage--Bama didn't release rushing stats for anyone other than Fowler for some reason--has him explaining that Yeldon "did not gain a lot of yards but got a lot of good experience." With Lacy, Fowler, and probably Hart ahead of him at this point, I have a hard time believing that Yeldon will make a significant impact this year unless there are major injuries.

So, yeah. Nothing too revelatory here, as the only potential playing time controversy doesn't begin until you get to the third string. Here's a video of RB drills that is just about as exciting as it sounds; if you have exactly 2 minutes that you need to foolishly fritter away, watch this.

Things To Think About/Watch Out For/ARE WE GONNA DIE?
  • To address the not at all overdramatic question: it's distinctly possible. 
  • Can either Hart or Yeldon take ownership of the third string spot behind Lacy and Fowler? I could easily see Hart filling a Justice Hayes type slot/scat back role, but it remains to be seen if that is something that Bama/Nussmeier wants or even needs as a part of the offense. The Tide probably have room for a Wildcat package now and then, and I could see Hart filling that role with his quickness and his ability to get down in his cuts behind that enormous offensive line. 
  • Alabama will practice for the last time this spring today before Saturday's A-Day game; will any of the backs that aren't Fowler produce a little more results than they have thus far this spring? 
  • Can you tell that there's not a whole lot going on here? 
Meaningless Grade That I Will Give Out Anyway
It's very difficult not to give this group an A based on depth and potential alone, however I have to give it a tentative A-, which is admittedly a bit harsh. I'm confident that Lacy will be a very good player, but he just hasn't had a chance to truly prove it yet. Fowler looks like your standard issue bowling ball that runs angrily, but can he do it against, say, a fresh Michigan or LSU defense as opposed to mediocre to horrible defenses like Auburn's or Ole Miss's? He should be fine, but, again, it's not a given. After that, Dee Hart is a big talent but is coming off of a knee injury and is only a redshirt freshman anyway. Yeldon, similarly, will be a true freshman, and might not get much playing time regardless of how talented he is.

This is a deep and talented group, however, and the Michigan's front 7 will have its hands full as it attempts to account for each back's running style. Thankfully, there is a long summer of S&C and fall practice before Michigan has to think about corraling Eddie Lacy or bringing down Jalston Fowler.

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