By most reasonable measures, Alabama has an embarrassment of riches at running back. T.J. Yeldon returns after rushing for 1,108 yards as a freshman. His backups are four-star sophomore Kenyan Drake and five-star Dee Hart. The program signed a quartet of four-star recruits this winter, and the likelihood of all of them being busts is basically nil given Nick Saban's track record.
Of course if you listen to the head man, the team is on dangerously thin ice:
I don't really see how we have a stacked group at running back. We have one guy coming back that rushed for a 1,000 yards. We have another guy that carried the ball a few times as a freshman, and two guys that got hurt that may or may not be able to come back and play that position very well. To me, to have really good depth at running back, you need five really good players. Three of those guys usually play a lot, so I know in your guys little fantasy football world you put...
OK, I think that's enough, Dr. Doom.
The fact is that it will be tough to project what the guys behind Yeldon will do simply because we don't really know what the pecking order is going to be. Drake had the third-most carries last year behind Eddie Lacy and Yeldon, so he has a shot at the backup role. Hart got more carries early than Drake did, but he went down to injury.
Blake Sims is still around, too. However, Saban is not shy to play freshmen if they earn a spot; Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Yeldon all jumped older players to become the backup running back in their freshman seasons.
We can take a crack at setting a reasonable baseline for Yeldon, though. He's solidly the starter, as Saban's grumpy rant above would indicate, and he was the A-Day player of the game for the second straight year. No one will pass him up unless he gets hurt.
Here is what the primary running back in each year of Saban's tenure at Alabama has done. The final column, percent of carries, refers to the split between the primary and backup rushers. It's not a share of the team's total carries.
|Pct. Of Carries
Right away, we have something of a baseline. The only two primary backs that failed to hit 1,000 yards missed time to injury, and Grant didn't have that strong a hold on the starting role anyway. Among the guys who stayed healthy, two hit 1,300 yards and two surpassed 1,600 yards and made it a fair bit of the way to 1,700. Of course the second guy to go over 1,600, Richardson in 2011, got some extra work thanks to his backup missing time and subsequently being hampered due to injury.
Let's take a look at the backup backs:
|Pct. Of Carries
Here we can see that Yeldon easily had the heaviest usage among backups. He even surpassed the carry rate of Coffee in 2007 and Richardson in 2010 when they got to play some games as the primary back. He was basically the 1-B to Lacy's 1-A in a lot of ways.
Now, let's do one last table and see how yards per carry rates as backups hold up when players slide over into the primary role. This just uses the season averages and doesn't account for individual games when roles might have been different.
Here's the scary part for anyone who doesn't wear crimson. The YPC rates as backups almost all improved when the players moved to the primary back role. Lacy was never going to sustain that 7.09 YPC rate as the starter, particularly because a line of nine carries for 161 yards against North Texas skewed it way upwards. Take out that day and he had a 5.96 YPC rate as the backup. That sounds better, until you realize that it means he also basically increased his YPC rate when he slid into the starting spot just like the other guys did.
So let's put this all together. What are we looking at for Yeldon in 2013?
I don't think he'll end up with fewer carries than Coffee did in 2008, which was 233. He probably won't match Richardson's 283 carries in 2011 unless the backup situation ends up as bad as Saban was trying to make it sound. Because numbers that end with fives and zeroes sound the best, let's set his range at 235 to 270 carries. That span will put him between Coffee's 2008 and Ingram's 2009 in terms of times toting the ball.
Given the track record, Yeldon's yards per carry rate might actually improve from where it was last season. He could end up roughly matching Lacy's 6.5 YPC rate as the starter. Past results do not necessarily indicate future performance, however, and his rate could fall due to offensive line issues, the defenses he'll face, or something else like that. We'll set the floor at 5.9 yards per carry, which is just below what Coffee, Ingram, and Richardson did in the primary role.
At the low end of the range, it comes out to 235 carries for 1,387 yards (5.9 YPC). At the high end of the range, it comes out to 270 carries for 1,755 yards (6.5 YPC). Right in the middle is 251 carries for 1,556 yards (6.2 YPC). The low end would probably be a disappointment given Yeldon's high expectations for this year, as it wouldn't be that much more than what he did in 2012. The high end would be a pretty heroic effort and would almost certainly get him to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Right down the middle is probably about right for expectations, and the fact that 1,500 yards at a 6.2 YPC rate over 250 carries sounds reasonable tells you just how good this guy is.