Running Backs: An Early Look

Going into the 2004 season, the question was whether Ray Hudson, once thought to be little more than a scatback, could replace Shaud Williams, the small running back with the big heart. Williams, despite his size, could bang between the tackles with the best of them, while breaking a big one around end or catching a pass out of the backfield.

Hudson did more than that. He was on pace to eclipse Williams' numbers when a freak accident during a tackle against Kentucky ended his season. The question then became whether Kenneth Darby, who had been very successful as Hudson's backup, could flourish as the starter. He did, until his own injuries caught up with him at the end of the year.

Unfortunately, Alabama couldn't catch lightning in a bottle a third time in 2004. True freshman Aaron Johns was thrust into the starter's role against Auburn and Minnesota, and failed in both outings. He simply wasn't ready.

Heading into 2005, Hudson has graduated, but Darby is back and is healthy. Tim Castille, a combo back who played at both running back and fullback last year, has also recovered from a knee injury suffered against Tennessee. But both players will be watched closely until they are put through contact drills and game situations.

Darby may not possess the most blazing speed, but he is a tough, fearless runner whose internal drive makes him tougher than just about anyone he'll line up across. He was very productive in 2004, even while battling multiple injuries. Even with a green offensive line, Darby should put up equal or better numbers in rushing yards, carries and touchdowns, provided he stays healthy. Whether he can maintain or improve his yards-per-carry average depends greatly on his blockers. He'll also be counted on more as a receiver in 2005; he caught only 15 passes for 74 yards and 1 TD in 2004.

Depending on how much speed Castille lost to his injured knee, as well as how strong his knee is heading into the fall, Castille could either start or backup Le'Ron McClain at fullback or be Darby's primary backup. Most likely, Castille will be the top backup to both Darby and McClain. He lacks the ideal speed to be the starter at tailback, but he has very good hands and his blocking is improving. That McClain got only 17 carries in 2004 is a crime; at around 6'0" and 250 pounds, McClain is a bull out of the backfield who should get more action in 2005.

Behind McClain and Castille at fullback are a handful of walkons, led by Mookie Chaney and Kyle Bennett. Victor Horn was a scholarshipped player at Auburn before transferring to Alabama, but he suffered a severely broken leg last fall and also missed spring training. He's a senior, so if he's going to play, this will be his last chance. Bennett is a converted linebacker who can block, but is not a running threat. Chaney reported to Alabama originally as a tailback and may be too light for the position.

The biggest question on the fans' minds, outside of the health of Darby and Castille, is who besides those two will get snaps at tailback. Aaron Johns is the most likely candidate, as he has good speed and above-average hands. But Johns landed in the coaches' doghouse prior to the spring, rumored to be because of his attitude towards offseason workouts. Walk-ons Theo Townsend and Rashad Johnson both played ahead of Johns at A-Day, but Johns was listed third on the depth chart at spring's end. Johns and Townsend are both scatbacks who would need to get a lot bigger to be every-down options, but both can contribute given the right circumstances. Johnson hasn't been tested in a game, but did well during the spring and could see some playing time in non-crucial situations.

The most likely scenario, however, is for either Roy Upchurch or Glen Coffee to log significant snaps this year. Both are true freshmen and were highly regarded in this signing class. Upchurch's style recalls that of a young Bobby Humphrey – a gliding, sometimes slashing style with a lot of speed mixed in. Coffee seems to enjoy contact and appears especially suited for Shula's between-the-tackles attack. But he also has speed to get outside.

Another signee, Ali Sharrief, has experience as a between-the-tackles runner despite measuring only around 5'9" and 180 pounds. He played running back and fullback in high school and has great toughness. He is probably ticketed for a redshirt. Mookie Chaney is another possibility if he moves back to running back from fullback. As for fullback, Alabama signed no true fullback in this class, but Baron Huber and Travis McCall could end up here in an emergency.

Summary: Look for McClain to get the bulk of the work at fullback, Darby the bulk of the work at tailback, and Castille significant snaps at both positions. No other fullbacks are likely to see action except in runaway games, or if injuries dictate it. At tailback, expect Upchurch and Coffee to compete for the third-team role. Aaron Johns' future depends on his work ethic and whether he can get more aggressive when running inside. Rashad Johnson and/or Theo Townsend could find a small role as a situational back or on special teams.

2004 Players: Kenneth Darby (12 games, 219 carries, 1,062 yards, 4.8 avg., 8 TD), Ray Hudson (6 games, 92 carries, 638 yards, 6.9 avg., 4 TD), Tim Castille (8 games, 62 carries, 247 yards, 4.0 avg., 6 TD), Aaron Johns (8 games, 53 carries, 200 yards, 3.8 avg., 0 TD), Le'Ron McClain (12 games, 17 carries, 66 yards, 3.9 avg., 2 TD), Josh Smith (12 games, 4 carries, 12 yards, 3.0 avg., 0 TD)

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