TUSCALOOSA, Ala. _ The agility drills were already hard enough when University of Alabama running backs coach Burton Burns decided to start making the players go through them while holding two football instead of one, and then added another degree of difficulty.

He told them to do so while hopping through the ropes on one foot.

The running backs struggled a little at first, but then got the hang of it, and now do so without giving it a second thought.

“We hear about ball security a lot,” sophomore running back Derrick Henry said. “That’s the main thing running backs are supposed to do, hold the ball high and tight.”

There’s a reason for the added emphasis.

Over the past seven years Alabama has had 125 fumbles, and 60 lost, for an average of 17.8 and 8.6 per season. The best season was 2011 with 12 fumbles and just four lost, followed by 2009 with 16 and seven respectively, while last year saw 14 and 10.

What was surprising was who was losing the ball in 2013, the running backs. They were credited with nine fumbles, seven lost, while no other position group had more than two (one lost), the wide receivers. That’s especially telling when you consider that the wideouts included Christion Jones, who also handled kick and punt returns.

T.J. Yeldon had five fumbles, four lost, while Kenyan Drake had four and three. No other player had more than one.

Factor in the total number of carries and receptions and Drake fumbled once every 26 touches (one lost per 34.67 touches) compared to every 45.4 for Yeldon (56). The other running backs combined had zero fumbles on 108 carries and catches.

Only making matters worse was where some of the fumbles occurred, like at the goal-line against Texas A&M and in the red zone against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, a 45-31 loss.

“Very, very costly in the bowl game, in terms of the points off turnovers,” Coach Nick Saban said. “We do a big presentation on basically every time we turn the ball over, the value is between three and four points. That’s the net outcome of a turnover. It’s also the outcome when we get one.

“I think turnover ratio is probably one of the most significant statistics relative to winning and losing.”

Last season Alabama’s turnover ratio (turnovers gained vs. lost) was just +2 at 19 to 17. However, it had a negative ratio in three games: 2-0 at Kentucky, 4-1 at Mississippi State, and 5-1 vs. the Sooners.

That all three were away from Bryant-Denny Stadium probably isn’t a coincidence.

Alabama turnover ratio during Saban era
2007 +4
2008 +6
2009 +19
2010 +11
2011 +8
2012 +14
2013 +2

Specific to fumbles, Alabama had 14 last season, losing 10, which ranked 72nd out of 123 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. In contrast, opponents had 20 fumbles, but with only eight recovered by the Crimson Tide.

“We do the old-fashioned gauntlet drills, and every day in practice we keep ball disruption, turnovers, caused turnovers, caused fumbles, recovered fumbles, both sides of the ball so every player is aware of how he’s taking care of the ball,” Saban said about trying to improve Alabama’s numbers offensively and defensively.

Coaches have also stressed that center Ryan Kelly be comfortable snapping the ball to both quarterbacks competing for the starring job, Blake Sims and Jacob Coker.

He didn’t have a botched snap to AJ McCarron last season, while in 2012, when Alabama had Barrett Jones move from left tackle to center, McCarron had seven fumbles with two recovered by the opposition.

“Even with the new guys we are trying to get to a system that every quarterback is the same no matter what,” Kelly said. “If one guy goes down it’s not like you haven’t work with him. That’s one of our big emphasis, eliminating balls on the ground no matter who it is — centers, quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs.”