The premise of our summer series on Alabama football positions stems in part from Shula's desire to have good players and good competition at each position. Some Crimson Tide positions have a good player, but not enough proven talent to say that competition is good. Hopefully, there are no positions completely lacking in Southeastern Conference caliber players.
Kenneth Darby and company make halfback at Alabama one of the best positions on the Crimson Tide football team, and probably better than that at almost any school.
Alabama calls its primary running back position "halfback." It is commonly known as the tailback or running back.
Only the most ardent partisan of another school would attempt to argue that any Southern team has been as successful as Alabama. And through most of its history–legendary quarterbacks notwithstanding–the Crimson Tide has dominated with a powerful running game.
The list of former Alabama running back greats includes Shaun Alexander, Johnny Musso, Bobby Marlow, Bobby Humphrey, Wilbur Jackson, Shaud Williams, and Sherman Williams, to name some of the most prolific.
It would take an all-star caliber performer to best that group. So it is something of a surprise that Kenneth Darby seems to get little respect in pre-season all-star mention, because at the end of the 2006 season there is a very good chance that Darby will be the all-time leading rusher in storied Crimson Tide history.
No Alabama rusher has ever had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Darby has had back-to-back seasons with at least 1,000 yards. A third will make him the all-time leader.
Darby was first team All-SEC in the selection by league coaches last year when he rushed for 1,242 yards. He rushed for 1,062 yards as a sophomore. He needs 1,080 yards to break Shaun Alexander's Bama record of 3,565 yards.
Darby (5-11, 205) has averaged 5.1 yards per carry for his career. His total of 10 career 100-yard rushing games is behind Alexander and Humphrey (15 each) and Sherman Williams (12).
Darby first began to shine in 2004 when Ray Hudson was injured in the sixth game of the season. Until then Darby was the back-up. And Darby has had his own injuries, notably having surgery for a sports hernia following the 2004 season.
That sports hernia surgery is noteworthy because Darby's back-up from last year, Glen Coffee, is now recuperating from surgery for a sports hernia, though Coffee's injury has been described as less severe than Darby's.
Although Coffee (6-0, 207) was limited in the spring, he 48 rushed for 179 yards as a true freshman last year. He is also a good receiver who had eight receptions for 91 yards and one touchdown.
A pleasant surprise last season was the play of Jimmy Johns at halfback. The former high school quarterback made the move to running back as a freshman last fall and finished as Bama's second-leading rusher. He had 38 carries for 202 yards. Although there was speculation Johns would go back to quarterback in the spring as the Tide searched for a replacement for Brodie Croyle, the 6-2, 220-pound Johns intends to stay at halfback.
Roy Upchurch (6-0, 193) had been expected to be in the halfback mix as a true freshman last season, but in August he had ankle surgery and was held out of 2005 competition. He had been expected to be limited in spring work, but from day one of spring practice was an impressive performer. It was no surprise that he was named winner of the Johnny Musso Most Improved Running Back Award. In five spring scrimmages he ran 52 times for 258 yards and five touchdowns and had five pass receptions for 43 yards.
Also back as a redshirt freshman after a year on the scout team is Ali Sharrief (5-9, 208). Sharrief had a tough assignment in the spring in trying to overtake those in front of him, and matters were not helped when he had a hamstring problem. It is reasonable to expect that most of his play this fall will come on special teams.
Although that's a good stable, Alabama expects to have even more running back help when fall camp opens August 7.
Terry Grant is a 5-10, 187-pound incoming freshman who was Mr. Football in Mississippi last year. He rushed for 2,720 yards and 35 touchdowns as a prep senior. As a junior he had 2,615 yards and 31 TDs. His Lumberton team won state titles both years.
Alabama followers are still waiting to hear official word that another running back signee will be in fall camp. Mike Ford, 6-2, 205, spent last season at Hargrave Military Academy in an attempt to become academically eligible. He was a record-setting halfback at Sarasota, where he was Florida's 5A Player of the Year. As a senior in 2004 he had 2,837 yards rushing and 37 touchdowns. He had seven consecutive games in which he broke the 200-yard mark in rushing.