Nick Saban is something of a running back guru. Year in and year out, you can almost count on him to have an absolute stud at the position. More often than not, he has a slew of proven backs he can trot out onto the field. Going back to the Bear Bryant days, running the ball has always been a staple of the Alabama football program.
After having near-constant running back stability for over a decade straight under Saban, Alabama will likely head into 2022 with question marks for the second straight season. The Tide certainly doesn’t lack talent or depth at the position, but the group will be in flux once again in terms of the distribution of playing time and carries.
Alabama Football: A year of chaos for Bama backfield
When first round draft pick Najee Harris departed following the 2020 season, Alabama football was lacking its typical star power at the running back position. The Tide returned super senior Brian Robinson, who had been a reserve for much of his career, and was capitalizing on the blanket waiver from the NCAA that granted all athletes an extra year of eligibility.
Alongside Robinson, the Tide brought back a pair of talented sophomores in Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams. McClellan, in particular, had shown lots of flash and promise his freshman year. Trey Sanders, a third year player, had suffered season ending injuries in his first two years in Tuscaloosa. The redshirt sophomore entered the season as a reserve after spending the offseason recovering from severe injuries suffered in a 2020 car crash. Lastly, the Tide welcomed in true freshman Camar Wheaton, a five-star recruit.
Speedster Keilan Robinson and true sophomore Kyle Edwards decided to transfer in the spring, unwilling to compete in the loaded position group and seeking greener pastures elsewhere. Camar Wheaton suffered a knee injury before the season started and would never suit up for the 2021 team, leaving the Tide with four scholarship backs on the roster.
Early on in the 2021 season, the running game looked like it would be handled with a committee approach. The room looked solid and well-balanced, but took a huge blow in week five against Ole Miss, when Jase McClellan went down with a season-ending knee injury. Brian Robinson shouldered the load from there, battling nagging injuries of his own.
Roydell Williams was a serviceable complement to Robinson. He ran extremely hard, but lacked the explosiveness and versatility of McClellan. Just weeks after McClellan’s injury, Williams also went down with a knee. In the Iron Bowl and throughout the postseason (probably the toughest stretch of the year), Alabama made do with only two scholarship backs.
Robinson and Trey Sanders handled the running back responsibilities as well as they could to close the season. With Robinson moving on (along with his 1,632 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns) and some new faces coming in, the 2022 running back room should look very interesting once again.
Alabama Football: Looking forward to 2022
Trey Sanders should be back next season, and will be another year removed from his injuries. He got a lot of valuable experience in 2021, finishing second on the team with 72 carries for 314 yards. Sanders’ career has been tumultuous thus far. Could he be due for a breakout season?
McClellan and Williams should return from their season ending injuries. It remains to be seen how quickly they will recover and get back to full strength. I assume they will both be brought along slowly, given the newfound depth at the position.
Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs is the shiny new toy. Gibbs is highly explosive with a complete skillset; he’s shifty and fast, possesses the strength to run through arm tackles, and has the hands to be a weapon out of the backfield. He is talented enough to be a feature back, and could also work well as part of a collective. Gibbs will arrive in Tuscaloosa as a junior, and he could get an early shot at grabbing the starting role as McClellan and Williams rehabilitate.
In the class of 2022, five-star Emmanuel Henderson and four-star Jamarion Miller will join the Tide backfield. Both are talented players that will have ample opportunities to prove themselves. Camar Wheaton will essentially function as a redshirt freshman after missing the 2021 season in its entirety.
Wheaton and Henderson give Alabama football a top three running back in each of the last two recruiting cycles, and should be very exciting to watch. Even if their roles are limited in 2022, they are the future of the Alabama backfield.
As it stands, Alabama will have seven quality backs on its roster for the upcoming season. History tells us that at least one of these guys will likely transfer. My hope is that the current injury situation at Alabama will remind players that they are never as far away from seeing the field as they may think.
Whether it loses transfers or not, the Alabama backfield should be supremely talented in 2022. It should also be a deep group featuring a variety of skill sets, and much more invulnerable to depletion by injury. I look forward to watching these guys run the ball.