The Alabama Crimson Tide has churned out some of the best running backs in college football over the past eight years. In that time, Tide fans have seen Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner in Mark Ingram, along with superstars like Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, and star in the making TJ Yeldon.
Great backs aren’t a new phenomenon for the Crimson Tide. Tailback has been one of the most storied position in Alabama’s deep legacy, from the likes of Tony Nathan and Harry Gilmer to Bobby Humphrey and Shaun Alexander.
Over the summer, we’ve been asking you to vote for the greatest Alabama Crimson Tide football player of all time, but who in the long history of the Tide is the greatest running back?
To try and narrow it down to a list of the five absolute best is an almost impossible task, but the following list have to be considered among the very best the Crimson Tide has ever produced.
#22 Johnny Musso (1969-1971)
The “Italian Stallion” was part of the conventional I-formation offense Alabama used in 1969 and ’70, but was also the featured back in the vaunted wishbone Alabama began using in 1971.
The tough, powerful Musso led Alabama in rushing all three of his years of eligibility (freshman weren’t eligible to play back then), even with just 516 yards as a sophomore in a rare pass-happy time under Bear Bryant.
A subpar season for the Bryant-led Tide in 1970 saw rough quarterback play, but Musso emerged as one of the best backs in the country, earning All American honors.
Even though 1970 saw his career high in yardage (1,137 yards), it was his senior year that saw Musso take the country by storm. In 1971 Bear Bryant unveiled the wishbone offense with Musso as the featured back. Musso was fourth in Heisman voting that year, and won SEC Player of the Year honors, tied with eventual Heisman winner Pat Sullivan.
Musso’s 16 rushing TDs was an Alabama record at the time. He ended his playing days with a brief stint in the Canadian Football League, and then the NFL with the Chicago Bears. He was elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 and the College Football Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.
1969 – 157 carries, 516 yards (3.3 YPC), 10 TD; 26 catches, 321 yards, 3 TD
1970 – 226 carries, 1,137 yards (5.0 YPC), 8 TD; 30 catches, 160 yards, 1 TD; 2/3 passing, 29 yards, 2 TD
1971 – 191 carries, 1,088 yards (5.7 YPC), 16 TD; 5 catches, 14 yards ; 2/2 passing, 27 yards
TOTAL – 574 carries, 2,741 yards (4.8), 34 TD; 61 catches, 495 yards, 4 TD; 5/6 passing, 88 yards, 2 TD
#26 Bobby Humphrey (1985-1988)
Bobby Humphrey broke nearly every Alabama rushing record at the time and was consistently one of the best tailbacks in the country. As a sophomore he broke the single-season Alabama rushing record with 1,471 yards, and led the Tide scoring with 15 touchdowns. He also broke the single-game rushing record (at the time) with 284 yards against Mississippi State.
In 1987 Humphrey was once again one of the top backs in the country and finished the season tenth in Heisman voting, and was named the UPI Offensive Player of the Year.
The year 1988 was when Alabama finally had it’s best chance at a Heisman winner, but it just wasn’t to be. Humphrey injured his foot in the Spring leading up to his senior year, and despite the injury never healing right, he attempted to play as the season began, only to break his foot in the second game.
Despite the injury Humphrey was still drafted in the first ound by the Denver Broncos, where he would return to form and became a Pro Bowler in his brief NFL career, playing for the Broncos and Miami Dolphins. Had Humphrey not been injured so early in his senior year, he could very well still hold many records to this day.
1985 – 99 carries, 502 yards (5.1 YPC), 4 TD; 15 catches, 146 yards, 3 TD
1986 – 236 carries, 1,471 yards (6.2 YPC), 15 TD; 22 catches, 201 yards, 2 TD
1987 – 238 carries, 1,255 yards (5.3 YPC), 11 TD; 22 catches, 170 yards, 2 TD; 1/1 passing, 57 yards
1988 – 42 carries, 192 yards (4.6 YPC), 3 TD; 1 catch, 6 yards
TOTAL – 615 carries, 3,420 yards (5.6 YPC), 33 TD; 60 catches, 523 yards, 7 TD; 1/1 passing, 57 yards
#22 Mark Ingram (2008-2010)
It’s hard not to say the only Heisman winner in a school’s history isn’t the greatest tailback ever, but not many teams have the legacy at that position that Alabama does.
The minute the Flint, MI native stepped foot on campus, Mark Ingram was turning heads. The nation got its first look at the freshman in the 2008 season opener against Clemson, as he and Glenn Coffee shredded up the VT defense to the tune of nearly 300 yards rushing.
Ingram was named a freshman All-American in 2008, but in 2009 he exploded into the national conversation. Ingram and freshman Trent Richardson made up the most prolific duo in Alabama history, gaining a combined 3,984 yards and 44 TDs rushing in their two years (2009 and 2010) together.
In 2009 Ingram ripped off nine 100-yard rushing games, including a career-high 246 yard performance against South Carolina. The final drive against South Carolina in that national championship season was considered by many to be his “Heisman moment.”
With the game 13-6 and South Carolina desperately trying to get the ball back, Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain put the ball in Ingram’s hands. With less than five minutes to go in the game, Ingram ran five straight times out of the wildcat for 64 yards, taking the ball down to the four yard line. He then took a pitch to finish off the scoring drive.
An exhausted Ingram was then helped off the field by his offensive line in a moment that will be etched in Crimson Tide lore.
Ingram sealed up his Heisman campaign with 113 yards and an SEC Championship record three scores versus Florida. Ingram took home the Heisman Trophy, the first in Alabama’s history, along with first team All-American honors and SEC Player of the Year with a team record 1,658 yards rushing, along with 17 TDs.
Ingram then capped off the magical season by winning offensive MVP honors in the BCS National Championship win over the Texas Longhorns with 116 yards and two touchdowns.
2010 was expected to be another big year for Ingram, though he likely would share more carries with Trent Richardson, but minor knee surgery right before the season slowed him up much of the year. Despite this he still broke Shaun Alexander’s career rushing TDs record, getting his 42nd rushing touchdown in the Capital One Bowl stomping of Michigan State.
Ingram was drafted in the first ound of the 2011 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints, where he continues to play.
2008 – 143 carries, 728 yards (5.1 YPC), 12 TD; 7 catches, 54 yards; 1 KOR, 26 yards
2009 – 271 carries, 1,658 yards (6.1 YPC), 17 TD; 32 catches, 334 yards, 3 TD
2010 – 158 carries, 875 yards (5.5 YPC), 13 TD; 21 catches, 282 yards, 1 TD; 1 KOR, 19 yards
TOTAL – 572 carries, 3,261 yards (5.7 YPC), 42 TD; 60 catches, 670 yards, 4 TD; 2 KOR, 45 yards
#37 Shaun Alexander (1996-1999)
Alabama’s all-time leading rusher is still considered by many as the greatest running back in the history of Crimson Tide football. The man some called “Alexander The Great” started off big by destroying Bobby Humphrey’s single-game rushing record as a freshman, when he went nuts on LSU in Baton Rouge for an amazing 291 yards and four touchdowns. Alexander had scoring runs of 17, 73, 72, and 12 yards in the record-setting performance.
In his first two years at Alabama, Alexander shared the ball with fellow backs Dennis Riddle and Curtis Alexander (no relation), but there was no question who the go-to man was beginning in 1998.
Alexander didn’t waste time in making an impact, as he ran for an Alabama record five touchdowns in the season opener against BYU.
Alexander was honored as All-SEC for the first time and decided to return for his senior year in 1999 instead of going to the NFL, but things started off very rocky for the Tide.
Head Coach Mike DuBose was on the hot seat after a sex scandal involving his secretary, and then Alabama lost to lowly Louisiana Tech on a Hail Mary pass. Even in the loss, Alexander attempted to will his team to victory, gaining 173 yards rushing and two TDs as well as returning his very first kickoff of his career 76 yards for a score as Louisiana Tech took the gamble of kicking to him.
Alabama was down 15-3 at the time of Alexander’s kickoff return, and began a comeback that saw Alexander score on runs of 30 and 14 yards before leading Alabama to a go-ahead field goal with just 2:36 left in the game. The Hail Mary by La. Tech snatched the victory away from the then undefeated Crimson Tide.
With rumors surrounding Alabama that Mike DuBose wouldn’t last the year, the Tide strolled into Gainseville, where third-ranked Florida had won 30 straight games. Against the Gators, Alexander ran for 106 yards and three rushing scores, along with 94 yards receiving and one TD.
A back-and-forth SEC slugfest continued on to overtime, where Alexander exploded through the Florida defense on Alabama’s first offensive possession for a 25-yard touchdown to win the game.
Shaun Alexander seemed to be poised for a Heisman run and at this point he was the leading candidate, having run for more than 100 yards in Alabama’s first six games. He then injured his ankle in a loss to rival Tennessee, and the Heisman campaign came to a close when he missed the next game against Southern Miss and continued to be slowed by the injury against both LSU and Mississippi State.
Alabama won the SEC West with the win over Mississippi State, so many questioned whether the still-ailing Alexander would risk further injury against rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
Alexander didn’t carry the ball much in the first half, and Alabama was down 14-8 at the start of the fourth quarter. “Alexander The Great” then took over the game, running for 101 yards and 3 TDs, leading Alabama to victory. Alexander had 182 yards rushing, and broke the Alabama career rushing record (which he still holds), along with the SEC and Alabama rushing touchdown record for a single season.
Alexander and the Tide dominated Florida in their rematch in the SEC Championship game, winning the title for Alabama for the first time since 1992. Alexander again ran roughshod over a defense in the Orange Bowl, shredding Michigan to the tune of 157 yards and three rushing scores.
Despite the effort, a missed extra point in overtime led to an Alabama loss in its first appearance in a bowl game during the BCS Era.
Alexander would go on to be drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft, where he became the all-time leading rusher for the Seahawks, the 2005 NFL MVP, and a perennial All Pro.
1996 – 77 carries, 589 yards (7.6 YPC), 6 TD; 7 catches, 53 yards
1997 – 90 carries, 415 yards (4.6 YPC), 3 TD; 4 catches, 37 yards
1998 – 258 carries, 1,178 yards (4.6 YPC), 13 TD; 26 catches, 385 yards, 4 TD
1999 – 302 carries, 1,383 yards (4.6 YPC), 19 TD; 25 catches, 323 yards, 4 TD; 2 KOR, 90 yards, 1 TD
TOTAL – 727 carries, 3,565 yards (4.9 YPC), 41 TD; 62 catches, 798 yards, 8 TD; 2 KOR, 90 yards, 1 TD
#3 Trent Richardson (2009-2011)
With all of the great backs to come through Tuscaloosa, Trent Richardson may very well be the very best and most talented of the bunch.
The powerful, speedy back combined with Mark Ingram to form one of the most prolific tandems in the country in 2009 and 2010 before taking over the reins in 2011.
Richardson was unquestionably the best back in the country in 2011, as he broke Shaun Alexander’s 100-yard games in a season with nine and also had six consecutive 100-yard performances, tying Alexander’s record. He broke Mark Ingram’s single-season rushing record with 1,679 yards and broke Alexander’s single-season rushing TD record with a country-leading 21 rushing TDs (to be fair, if bowl games counted towards stats in 1999, Alexander would have ended with 22 rushing TDs).
Richardson wowed the country with his jaw-dropping 61 yard scoring run against Ole Miss, in which he juked the same player twice on the way to the endzone.
He was a consensus All American and the first Tide player to win the Doak Walker Award (honoring the country’s best running back) and was second runner-up to the Heisman Trophy.
Richardson saved his best for last, running for a career-high 203 yards against rival Auburn in the 2011 Iron Bowl before capping off the season against LSU in the BCS National Championship game with a 34 yard TD (the only touchdown allowed by either team in the two games they played against one another in 2011) to seal the win.
Richardson made it a regular sight to see him dragging countless defenders on his back or running straight through a crowd of defenders, or as Eli Gold more accurately described it “through a sea of humanity.”
He wasn’t just a powerful runner, as he could also break off long runs, along with being a great pass catcher and excellent blitz protector in the passing game.
Richardson also led the team in kickoff returns in 2010 with over 600 yards and a 90+ yard return TD. He was drafted in the 2012 NFL Draft in the first round by the Cleveland Browns, where he was named to the All-Rookie team, despite playing the majority of the year with two broken ribs.
2009 – 145 carries, 751 yards (5.2 YPC), 8 TD; 16 catches, 126 yards; 1 KOR, 20 yards
2010 – 112 carries, 700 yards (6.3 YPC), 6 TD; 23 catches, 266 yards, 4 TD; 24 KOR, 634 yards, 1 TD
2011 – 283 carries, 1,679 yards (5.9 YPC), 21 TD; 29 catches, 338 yards, 3 TD; 3 KOR, 66 yards
TOTAL – 540 carries, 3,130 yards (5.8 YPC), 35 TD; 68 catches, 730 yards, 7 TD; 28 KOR, 720 yards, 1 TD
It truly is a task to narrow things down to just the five best, and it’s very subjective, as others could have just as easily inserted Siran Stacy, Tony Nathan, Sherman Williams, Eddie Lacy, Shaud Williams, Kenneth Darby, Harry Gilmer, or numerous others into the list. In addition, TJ Yeldon very well could knock someone off this list in the very near future at what you might call Running Back University.