During Nick Saban’s tenure as Alabama’s head football coach, there have been times when one wondered how the Crimson Tide would use all its running backs. Among those who wondered, apparently, were the likes of Alvin Kimara and Altee Tenpenny, who elected to transfer rather than fight the depth.
At other times, there was a question as to whether Alabama would have enough running backs.
In every season prior to this one under Saban, at least the No. 2 tailback has returned to be No. 1. The list of those tailbacks includes the likes of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
But prior to this year, not only did Henry depart for the NFL, so did last year’s back-up tailback Kenyan Drake.
The returning tailbacks were the three and four men from 2015, both of whom had been freshmen, Damien Harris (46 carries for 157 yards) and Bo Scarbrough (18 carries for 104 yards). Added to the list were two freshman signees, B.J. Emmons and Josh Jacobs.
Four deep sounds like plenty. And through the ninth game of the year, it seems to be more than adequate with Bama averaging 259.3 yards per game, second in the Southeastern Conference, and 5.8 yards per carry.
But as Bama (9-0 overall, 6-0 in SEC play and ranked first in the nation) prepares to host Mississippi State (4-5, 2-3) at 11 a.m. Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium (ESPN televising), running back depth is an issue.
Emmons has been lost indefinitely for what was described as a sprained foot. Before being injured, he had 35 carries for 1753 yards, 4.9 per carry, with one touchdown. He also had moved into the kickoff return rotation and had one runback for 26 yards.
In an early game against Kent State, Harris had to leave the game with what turned out to be a seriously sprained ankle. He had only two carries for 11 yards in Bama’s next game against Kentucky, but the following week at Arkansas had 13 rushes for 122 yards. Harris is Bama’s leading rusher with 99 carries for 750 yards (7.6 per carry) and one touchdown.
Scarbrough seems always to be in sickbay, including going to the locker room during the LSU game with what was described as a sprained knee. He did return and in the fourth quarter had a key 10-yard run on fourth-and-one in the drive that produced the only touchdown of the game in the Tide’s 10-0 win in Baton Rouge. For the year he has 62 carries for 358 yards (5.8 per rush) and five TDs.
Jacobs has stayed injury-free and has 58 runs for 378 yards (6.5 per rush) and three touchdowns.
Saban said, “I think it’s always good to have depth at the running back position. It’s the position that has the shortest shelf life in the NFL. When those guys have the ball, everybody’s trying to hit on them. We like having multiple backs that can play so that we can leave a little more tread on the tires as the season wears on.
“Now we have three guys and those guys are all a little bit different in style and we need all three of them to play. I think that’s really, really important, especially at this time of year.”
Saban was asked if the injuries to the running backs are to be expected three-fourths of the way through the regular season.
"I think it is,” he said. “We went into the season where that was not a position where we had an extraordinary amount of depth. We had two freshmen players that came through for us very nicely, Josh Jacobs and B.J. Emmons. We're sorry that B.J. got hurt because he was really coming along and doing well and had really started to become the kickoff returner.
“The guys are a little banged up and it is concerning. We do have Derrick Gore that we think is a good next guy and can make a good contribution if we need to. He's been a good special teams player for us.”
Gore, a walkon player, has 7 carries for 46 yards.
Alabama also lists sophomore Ronnie Clark, an outstanding athlete who has practiced at wide receiver and in the secondary, as a tailback.
Running back may not be Alabama’s only area of health concern.
Saban said, “Lack of depth at certain positions is certainly a concern. We have it at other positions on the team as well. Sometimes you can ill-afford to lose any other players and I think we're at that position in several of our depth situations."