Running Backs Have Extra Roles

When Glen Coffee elected to leave Alabama after his junior season, pundits began measuring the potential successors for the starting job as Crimson Tide tailback. Most consider it a three-man race, but more than three running backs may figure into Bama plans.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban was asked on Wednesday how many tailbacks he needed to have ready to play in the season-opening game against Virginia Tech. It should come as no surprise that Saban thinks about football in a wider scope than do the rest of us.

The simple answer is three, but it's not that simple.

Last year's number two and number three tailbacks are likely to be among those three. Alabama has nominated soph Mark Ingram for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back. Ingram finished last season as the number two running back and was Bama's second-leading rusher behind Coffee. Ingram had 143 carries for 728 yards and led the team in rushing touchdowns with a Bama freshman record 12 scores. He was first team Freshman All-Southeastern Conference.

Roy Upchurch has been injury-plagued in his Tide career, but Saban has said the senior should be recovered from surgery to correct a neck condition. That ailment kept Upchurch out of the last few games of 2008 and he was held out of contact in the spring. In nine games before his injury he had 350 yards and four touchdowns rushing and was also an effective pass receiver with nine catches for 101 yards.

Trent Richardson, a 5-11, 220-pound freshman, checks in with outstanding credentials from his Florida prep career, and also got high marks from Tide players for his work in the summer program in Tuscaloosa.

There are other candidates. The running back position was helped this week when Eddie Lacy, a 6-0, 210-pound freshman, gained academic eligibility. He will start behind since he was not in Tuscaloosa during the summer.

Terry Grant hasn't played much at tailback the past two years, but the gutsy little senior has great speed and a history of success. Not much has been seen of Demetrius Goode or Jeramie Griffin. Freshman Mike Marrow could end up as an H-back in special situations.

Coffee was a big loss for the running back corps, but not the only one. On Wednesday Saban announced that Jermaine Preyear (suspended) and Ivan Matchett (medical) would no longer be participating. Neither had played after signing in 2008.

Saban said, "I think I would always be comfortable having three guys. I also think that running back is a position where good special team players come from. If we have some other guys that have those qualifications, I certainly feel like we could take more. Roy Upchurch has been one of our best special teams players. Terry Grant became a very good special teams player for us last year.

"There are models in the NFL now, and I know Bill (Belichick) does this in New England, where a backup running back has to be able to contribute on special teams. A third down back, which may be your third back, has to be able to contribute on special teams, otherwise with a 47 man roster you don't have enough guys to play on special teams. In college you have more players, you can take more players, but there are still some positions that are better suited, body type and athletic ability wise, to play on special teams and running back would be one of those.

"I would like to have three good functional backs that can play in our offense at a minimum for the first game. We would like to have that."

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