A Tale Of Two Running Games

Alabama started the 2007 season seemingly well-stocked at tailback. Even though three-year starter Kenneth Darby had graduated, running back looked like a strength of the offense. No more.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban said following Wednesday's practice that he had never experienced a team having such attrition at the running back spot. "I've never been where we were as thin as we are now," he said.

Alabama opened the season with redshirt freshman Terry Grant the number one tailback. That is about the only part of the running back situation that has not changed since Bama opened the season ten games ago. Although Grant's production has fallen a bit in recent weeks, he is still the Crimson Tide's leading rusher with 159 carries for 795 yards. He has averaged 5.0 yards per carry and has a team-leading seven rushing touchdowns. He has Alabama records for a freshman for rushes, yards and touchdowns.

Sophomore Glen Coffee was the back-up tailback. He is in the midst of a suspension as part of the investigation into players having improper receipt of textbooks and has not played since the Ole Miss game. Even missing three games he is Bama's second leading rusher with 90 carries for 413 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. He was the starter in one game, against Houston.

Sophomore Roy Upchurch has missed playing time with injuries, but has played in nine games and has 30 carries for 162 yards and one touchdown. In last week's game against Mississippi State he was hampered by injury. He was limited in practice early this week with a shoulder injury, but has practiced and Saban lists him among those who are "day-to-day."

Saban noted that players respond to injury in different ways. "Coffee had the same injury (as Upchurch) and it didn't seem to bother him," the coach said.

Senior Jonathan Lowe was a wide receiver – very much a down-the-line wide receiver – when the season started. Most of his playing time had been on special teams as he was a deep man with Javier Arenas on kickoff returns. He has nine runbacks for 158 yards. A couple of games back he was utilized as a tailback and he is now listed as number two at the running back spot. He has 13 carries for 35 yards and one touchdown.

There has been great interest in junior Jimmy Johns. Johns, a junior, was the back-up to Kenneth Darby in 2005 and 2006 and Bama's second-leading rusher both as a freshman and sophomore. Johns missed some spring work because of academic deficiencies. In fall camp he was moved to fullback, although he has seen almost no playing time on offense. He has 13 carries for 35 yards and and three pass receptions for 41 yards. He has been prominent on special teams.

Saban said Wednesday that "Jimmy Johns has done a pretty good job in practice this week It's possible we'll play him some Saturday."

Saban said one silver lining of Coffee, along with starting offensive linemen Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis, being suspended is that it has made the scout team better. "I think it has helped our defense, particularly against the running game," Saban said. "Those guys have done a terrific job in that role."

Alabama will be playing a team whose running game is a strength. The Crimson Tide will host the University of Louisiana at Monroe at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Warhawks are led by running back Calvin Dawson.

Dawson leads the Sun Belt Conference with 125.7 rushing yards per game. That figures also ranks 10th nationally. Dawson has rushed for 100 yards in 15 of his last 16 games, including five straight games against BCS schools, including 118 yards against the Tide in last year's meeting.

The Tide defense has spent the week working against an offense that features a dual threat quarterback and one the nation's top running backs. Wednesday's two-hour practice in full gear was held in the indoor practice facility.

"Louisiana Monroe is playing well," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "They are 4-2 in their last six games. They are a very good offensive team and high-scoring. They run the football, spread you out, got some good skill guys and this is going to be another challenge for us. As you know, anybody can beat anybody in college football and our guys better be ready and focused on what they need to do to play well."

ULM quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster is fourth in the Sun Belt Conference in pass efficiency (120.92), sixth in total offense (195.4) and 15th in rushing (34.8).

"(Dawson) is a good runner," Saban said. "They are in a spread offense. They run kind of a zone-option read offense. The guy is 10th nationally and averages over 100 yards a game. He has good quickness and vision as a runner and it's going to be a real challenge for us. We have to play well on the line of scrimmage and be sound in our gap fits.

"(Lancaster) is a good runner too. He is a dual-threat as a passer and a runner. We have to make sure we are checking him off the zone read as well. This is a team that can make explosive plays on you and we are going to have to a good job defensively to stop them."

Alabama junior defensive back Rashad Johnson says the Tide is well aware of the Warhawks' offense.

"The first thing Coach Saban told us in the defensive meeting was (Dawson) is a really good running back," Johnson said. "This may be the top quarterback-running back combination we have seen this year. We need to work hard this week and play well on Saturday."

In addition to Upchurch, Saban discussed the injury situation and said that senior linebacker Demarcus Waldrop, who is a fixture on several special teams, was the least likely to be able to play. Waldrop was out with a groin injury.

Saban said that freshman linebacker Rolando McClain was limited Monday with illness, but that he was back practicing, and that offensive lineman B.J. Stabler was practicing, though he had been limited during the week.

He also addressed the situation regarding suspended players – Coffee, Caldwell, Davis, and back-up defensive backs Chris Rogers and Marquis Johnson. Saban said "We may get some indication late in the week."

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