In-Depth Look At Tide's T.J. Yeldon
The first year success of T.J. Yeldon may have been a surprise to many Alabama fans, but not to everyone.
"T.J. is an exceptional player," Daphne Coach Glenn Vickery said. "I've told people early on I don't want to sound cocky but it's not a surprise to us that know him. We know how special a player he was and competitive he was all the way through the ranks. It wasn't a big surprise to those who coached and followed T.J. through his career."
Falling forward is a requisite trait a clown must master to elicit laughter from a crowd. A running back exhibiting the same skill brings tears to the eyes of defensive coordinators. Other athletes are equipped with superior physical tools but the difference according to Vickery is the highly competitive nature. Stiff arms and continually fighting for the extra yard are two staples in the Yeldon playbook designed to maximize every rushing attempt. Leading by example is the choice for the introverted freshman instead of a fiery sermon in the gridiron sanctuary known as the huddle.
The brilliant ability was apparent early. At the tail end of his freshman year at Daphne he was called up to the varsity to play slot receiver and contribute on special teams. "He returned a kickoff 90 plus yards against a very good Pace (Florida) High School team," said Vickery. "He was one of those guys that he never let it go to his head. He kept working. If you just saw him walking on the street you wouldn't know he was a five-star recruit. He didn't wear it on his sleeve."
Fame has swarmed the reluctant outstanding performer. The true freshman scampers faster from the limelight than against opposing defenses. His feet are so nimble they allow him to elude not only would be tacklers but the paparazzi's flash. Vickery believes over time Alabama will "coach him up" to do the right thing and take to the microphone with the willingness and ease he accepts a hand-off from the quarterback.
Game days as a prep star found Yeldon with the throttle wide open often streaking downfield for long touchdown runs. Practice was more of an idle mode. Vickery said, "He always did everything you told him to do but wasn't a tremendous practice player. He didn't show the flash." Appearances at the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl were two classic examples of Vickery having to prompt the coaching staff to just "give T.J. the ball". He responded with an MVP effort in Montgomery and glimpses of the spectacular for a national television audience by hurdling defenders in San Antonio.
Soft hands have enabled Yeldon to operate as a dual-threat. "As a junior T.J. was not our leading rusher. We played him as a slot receiver," said Vickery, head coach of the 2010 Daphne Trojans, winners of the Alabama 6A State Championship. "I often tell people he has Julio Jones hands without the straight ahead speed. He brings the total package as a running back." Yeldon scored the only touchdown from the wildcat formation in the 7-6 victory. He was a natural at any position.
An early 2012 enrollee, Yeldon was earning the Dixie Howell Memorial MVP Trophy for the A-Day Game on the date of his senior prom. No Alabama freshman had ever been the recipient of the prestigious award. Next on the agenda was becoming the first true Tide freshman to debut with over 100 rushing yards, 111 against Michigan. He topped those two achievements by becoming the first freshman in school history to rush for 1,000 yards, on his 25th carry in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia.
Vickery said, "He was always a pleasure to coach. There are a lot of 3, 4 and 5-star recruits not a pleasure to coach. He was always a level-headed guy. T.J. had great instincts and football savvy. Wherever we put him he picked it up quickly."
Many frivolous rumors are spread during recruiting. Nick Saban actually had to dispel the preposterous one claiming Yeldon, the state's 2011 Mr. Football by the Alabama Sports Writers Association, would be moved to safety upon arrival in Tuscaloosa.
The staff at Alabama was not surprised either with the immediate success of the heralded prep star. "T.J. came to us early and was able to go through spring football practice with us so we saw some development there," said Burton Burns, associate head coach and running backs coach for the Tide. "He worked extremely hard during the summer and fall camp."
Tenacity is one of the admirable qualities Yeldon possesses. "The thing about T.J. is he just wears you down physically," Burns said. "From the first play to the last play he is going to run.The guys who defend against him understand that. He has this knack for not only using his power but his quickness. He has really improved his pass protection."
Media day for the 2013 Discover BCS National Championship Game was held Saturday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. Yeldon was immobilized for a few moments while the press corps spoke to the shy freshman for the first time. He addressed the few tangible mishaps during the season – fumbles against LSU and Texas A&M. "I was able to put those behind me," he said. "After the Texas A&M game, Trent Richardson was there and was able to talk with me. Some of my other teammates told me not to worry about it. I just kept working on ball security keeping the ball high and tight."
The best moment thus far, "probably scoring the LSU game winning touchdown".
Confidence is a requisite for any freshman running back competing against SEC defenses. "I know I was going to have to go out there and work hard," he said. "My parents stayed on me about working hard and so did the coaches so I just kept working hard and got going." Blocking and the speed of the game were the two most difficult transitions.
A rap artist is a part of the ritual to prepare for the game mentally. "I listen to music (Lil Wayne) and get my mind right and get focused and do what I have to do," said Yeldon. Any apprehension about playing on the big stage was shed early. "I got butterflies my first college game but I got the hang of it and they don't really come to me anymore," he said.
Yeldon was an instrumental figure in winning a state championship for Daphne. Representing the city at the flagship university is another reason to shower the budding superstar with appreciation. "The community is very proud of me," he said. "They always tell me how proud of me they are when I go home," said Yeldon whose parents will be in attendance at the BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame. Even the normally serene running back revealed a sense of excitement for Monday night's game. "It's pretty awesome to play in the national championship game as a freshman," he said.
Trash talkers take heed. "I let my playing do the talking," said the record breaking Yeldon. So far the playing has produced significant moments in Alabama football history.
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