Analyzing the Crimson Tide Running Back Corps
Reload, not rebuild. Similar phrases are seen all across social media in relation to the Alabama Crimson Tide football team.
For the 2021 squad, the narrative doesn't change. It doesn't matter to the Nick Saban-led juggernaut in Tuscaloosa that the program's all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns, as well as scrimmage yards and total touchdowns, is now in Pittsburgh. Najee Harris is one of the true legends to come through T-Town, but the machine keeps churning in the pursuit of more legends and championships.
As pivotal a player as Harris was for Alabama, with such heavy turnover in personnel on the offensive side of the ball, there's no doubting the importance that someone in the backfield must rise to the challenge of being the feature back at Alabama. After all, during Harris's tenure at Alabama, the Crimson Tide passed the ball more than ever and he still went to the NFL with all the records.
While Alabama has four, possibly five backs to lean on, there is only one football. Someone will have to earn the right to lead the way while other well-deserving players await their own opportunities. Let's take a look at what each back on the Crimson Tide roster brings to the table as we near the 2021 college football season.
Brian Robinson is the elder statesman of the Alabama Crimson Tide roster, not just the running back room. The Hillcrest High School alumn has put up stats in each of his four years at The Capstone. This season he'll be taking advantage of the extra year afforded to college athletes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That experience plays to Robinson's advantage in the battle for carries. Robinson has played behind and earned reps from the likes of Damien and Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs. Despite the talent in front of him, Robinson has always peeked through to remind fans he belongs on the field with the best of the best.
So what separates Brian Robinson beyond his experience?
The fact is, Robinson is without a doubt the most powerful runner on the team. Standing at 6'1"-230lbs, Robinson is taller than every back and weighs at least 15lbs more than the next back (Sanders.) Playing the bulldozer has often been the role for Robinson as more athletic backs have taken the initial reps during games.
Head coach Nick Saban has said before Robinson deserved more reps but the depth chart was just never in his favor. The same could have been said for Najee Harris for much of his career and he exploded in 2020 once the backfield became his. Who's to say Robinson doesn't take the same route.
The 2021 offense has to replace eight starters this fall. With Bryce Young quarterbacking the team, don't be surprised for Alabama under new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to utilize Robinson's power early in the season to get Young acquainted with the SEC. Then when it's time to grind in the postseason once again, Crimson Tide fans could see a whole lot of number four.
Ask any dedicated Crimson Tide fan to sum up Trey Sanders's first two seasons in Tuscaloosa in one word and the most common word would likely be unlucky.
In 2019, the 5-star freshman broke his foot in training camp just before the season began. In 2020, just as Sanders was beginning to push his way into a serious rotation with Harris and Robinson, the sophomore back was involved in a car accident that ended his season in November.
While Crimson Tide fans haven't gotten to see much of Sanders, the anticipation to see him perform is still present, and for good reason. Sanders displays excellent body control and vision on the field.
While he is the second-biggest back on the team, he can combine elusiveness with power making for a well-rounded back. Don't be surprised to see some of the initial receiving reps to fall to him as well due to his ability to make defenders miss in the open field with a variety of moves similar to Najee Harris.
Sanders is a big play waiting to happen and is the perfect one-two to Robinson's consistent, thumping style. It's vital that Sanders remain healthy in 2021, however, as there are two speed demons with versatile skill-sets who do not waste opportunities impatiently waiting behind him.
The first of those two electric backs is Jase McClellan, who already owns an 80-yard touchdown in the stat sheet.
Speed is quite a valuable asset for an SEC running back. He put that speed to work in the A Day Spring game as well, racking up 46 yards on 12 carries and seven catches for 62 yards. McClellan is a versatile weapon that is deadly in the open field.
While McClellan has certainly taken full advantage of his reps, the one unproven piece of his game often found in lead Alabama backs is power and tackle-breaking ability. That's not to say McClellan cannot or will not show these things in 2021 and beyond, rather that we've seen these traits in Robinson and Sanders. Those traits help sustain drives, which is just as important as busting 80-yard touchdowns.
That being said, expect plenty of reps for McClellan throughout the season, especially when it counts. He'll make weaker opponents look foolish in mop-up duty as he's already proven, but his early reps will give Crimson Tide fans a better idea of what's to come in future seasons.
Much of the same can be said for Roydell Williams. He's wicked fast and can create separation in the open field with just as much ease. We have seen a bit more grit in tight carries than McClellan, but nothing to separate him from the back with more carries, yards and touchdowns.
Still, Williams mirrored McClellan's A Day stats going for 43 yards on 12 carries and 65 yards on four receptions. Williams is just as versatile and just as deadly as his teammate from Texas.
Williams may see the field in the same way Robinson did early, peaking through with glimpses of starting-caliber play. There's no doubt that when number 23 takes the field for Alabama in 2021 all eyes should be glued as he shows what's to come.
With Kyle Edwards in the Transfer Portal, incoming 5-star freshman Camar Wheaton is very likely to see mop-up duty for the Crimson Tide in a handful of games.
Wheaton is yet another speed threat who could very well explode for a long touchdown against a weaker opponent this year much like McClellan before him. Wheaton shows impressive agility in traffic and explodes into the open field with a track star's gallop that will no doubt translate to the SEC in time.
Wheaton may not be able to contribute to the first-team offense right away due to the insane depth in Alabama's backfield, but he will provide a great deal of depth down the stretch and excitement late in murderball matchups.