Examining Alabama’s RB factory and how it translates in the NFL
The Tide’s best players can’t seem to keep the success going after college.
Let’s be honest, Alabama is arguably one of the best — if not THE best — homes for a running back. Good running backs come to Tuscaloosa to become great running backs. Great running backs come to Tuscaloosa to become phenoms.
So where’s the disconnect when they move to the NFL?
It wasn’t always this way. There are a number of Tide backs who had huge professional careers, but that trend has taken a dive, especially in the last 10 years.
Some think it’s the Tide linemen who are the real stars, not the running backs. Surely some of Alabama’s running backs have real talent.
Here’s a look at some of the best ball carriers to come through Alabama in the last 30 years, and how they fared at the next level:
Even though he left the Tide almost 30 years ago, this name should be familiar to Alabama fans, not only because he was a great running back, but also because he is the father of current Tide DB Marlon Humphrey.
Humphrey was a standout in college, and he looked to be Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner until a broken foot ended his senior season after just two games. However, that injury didn’t hurt his draft stock.
Denver drafted Humphrey as the third overall pick in 1989. He was rocking the NFL scene until he sprained his ankle with just two games left in the 1990 season. Humphrey then decided he wasn’t being paid enough, so he held out until there were just two games left in the regular season. That proved to be a decision that killed his career. He was traded to Miami, where, despite playing all 16 games, he only managed 103 carries and 471 yards.
College career average (4 seasons): 154 carries, 855 yards, 8 TDs
NFL career average (4 seasons): 174 carries, 714 yards, 4 TDs
Alexander is one of Alabama’s NFL success stories. His senior season with the Tide was by far his best. He racked up 302 carries for 1,383 yards and 19 TDs on the ground. He also had 25 receptions for 323 yards and 4 TDs through the air. His performance gave him the No. 7 finish in Heisman voting in 1999. He held most of Alabama’s records until Derrick Henry came along.
In 2000, he was drafted by Seattle in the first round as the No. 19 overall pick. He had a slow first season with just 64 carries for 313 yards and 2 TDs, even though he played in every game. He maintained consistent and rising averages for the next six seasons, before declining in his final season with Seattle. His best season was 2005, when he was named NFL MVP.
In 2006, it was announced he would be on the cover of Madden ’07, and we all know it’s a curse for NFL players.
After eight seasons with the Seahawks, he was released, and Washington signed him for the 2008 season. He only saw 4 games with the Redskins, and he had 11 carries, 24 yards and no TDs.
College career average (4 seasons): 182 carries, 891 yards, 10 TDs
NFL career average (9 seasons): 243 carries, 1,050 yards, 11 TDs
Coffee was a mystery for most football fans. He had a monster junior season at Alabama with 233 carries for 1,383 yards and 10 TDs, which almost doubled his combined numbers of two prior seasons.
He left Alabama early, and he was drafted in the third round by San Francisco in 2009. And after a single, pretty good season, he retired.
Coffee received lot of criticism over his sudden retirement. He admitted he never really loved the game. He played first because his friends played, then because his mom made him, and finally because it paid the bills. But it wasn’t the only thing that paid the bills, so Coffee left the 49ers before the 2010 season even began.
After his retirement, Coffee returned to Tuscaloosa to finish school, and he continued standing behind his unpopular decision to leave a life he just didn’t enjoy. In 2013, Coffee enlisted in the Army, and he is now a paratrooper for the 6th Ranger Training Battalion.
College career average (3 seasons): 137 carries, 702 yards, 5 TDs
NFL career average (1 season*): 83 carries, 226 yards, 1 TD
*Retired just before second season began
We all know Ingram as the first Tide player — and at the time, the youngest player in history — to bring home the Heisman Trophy after his exceptional 2009 season. In his three-year career with Alabama, Ingram racked up 572 carries for 3,261 yards and 42 TDs, and his Heisman season accounted for 271 carries for 1,658 yards and 17 TDs.
In 2011, New Orleans drafted him as the No. 28 overall pick. In his first season with the Saints, Ingram carried the ball 122 times for 474 and 5 TDs. He’s been fairly consistent over the years, peaking in the 2014 season, but he’s still been unable to match his college numbers.
College career average (3 seasons): 191 carries, 1,087 yards, 14 TDs
NFL career average (5 seasons): 150 carries, 639 yards, 5 TDs
Richardson was a nightmare on the field for every defense the Tide faced. But he was also an absolute beast in the weight room. His hard work translated to the field, where in his senior season alone, he carried the ball 283 times for 1,679 yards and 21 TDs. In 2011, he finished No. 3 in Heisman voting.
Most had high hopes for Richardson. In 2012, Cleveland drafted him as the third overall pick. Richardson started strong. He carried the ball 267 times for 950 yards and 11 TDs in his rookie season. Over the next three years, he played for the Browns and then Colts, accumulating only 347 carries for 1,082 yards and 6 TDs.
Indianapolis waived Richardson after the 2014 season, and he moved on to Oakland. But after a bout with pneumonia, Richardson was released before the 2015 season even began. He was reactivated in August 2015, but then he got cut again just weeks later. Reportedly, Richardson will be joining the Ravens for the 2016 season, pending a physical exam.
College career average (3 seasons): 180 carries, 1,043 yards, 12 TDs
NFL career average (4 seasons*): 154 carries, 508 yards, 4 TDs
*Did not play in 2015 season
Lacy wasn’t healthy for a great deal of his college career, and yet he was still a beast on the gridiron. In his third and final season with the Tide, Lacy carried the ball 204 times for 1,322 yards and 17 TDs on the ground. He also made waves in the air that season with 22 receptions for 89 yards and 2 TDs.
He chose to forego his senior year, which still looks like a smart move when considering his injury-prone past. Green Bay drafted him in the second round in 2013. Lacy’s rookie season was one for the books with 284 carries for 1,178 yards and 11 TDs. His second season was nearly identical, but his performance dropped in 2015, as he carried the ball just 187 times for 758 yards and 3 TDs.
His dwindling numbers came as Lacy began facing criticism for weight gain. Lacy has committed to getting back in shape this offseason, though he will be focusing on feeling good instead of losing weight. However, when you consider that his performance in the NFL has well surpassed his performance in college, Lacy may be Tide head coach Nick Saban’s biggest backfield success story so far.
College career average (3 seasons): 118 carries, 801 yards, 10 TDs
NFL career average (3 seasons): 239 carries, 1,025 yards, 8 TDs
Le’Ron McClain: A hard-nosed fullback for the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers, McClain actually became the primary ball-carrier in 2008. During that season, he rushed for 902 yards and 10 touchdowns in addition to 19 receptions for 123 yards. He made first-team All-Pro in ’08 and made second-team All-Pro in ’09 before his play dropped sharply during the last three years of his career (2011-13).
T.J. Yeldon: An early second-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, by all accounts Lacy had a productive rookie season. He ran for 740 yards on 4.1 yards per carry and also was a major factor in the passing game, collecting 36 passes for 279 more yards. He also did not fumble the ball in 218 touches.
Jalston Fowler: A rookie for the Tennessee Titans in 2015, Fowler is one of just a few blocking fullbacks still thriving in the NFL. The stat sheet doesn’t say much — Fowler got seven carries and five catches — but Pro Football Focus graded him as one of the best lead blockers in the NFL. Fowler also contributed as a solid special teams player.
THE FUTURE OF ALABAMA RUNNING BACKS IN THE NFL
For the most part, Alabama’s reputation of producing spectacular-in-college, not-so-spectacular-in-the-NFL running backs is pretty well founded. But can Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake change things for the Tide’s legacy?
Despite the fact that Henry crushed pretty much every Alabama record with his 395 carries for 2,219 yards and 28 TDs in a single season, and that he brought home the Heisman Trophy for the second time in Tide history, AND that he led the Tide to another national championship this season, he is not expected to be a first-round draft pick next month.
Maybe analysts are spooked that Henry will be another Alabama bust, or maybe they’re being realistic about his style of play and skill set. It could be a plus for Henry if the expectations are lower than they have been in the past for Tide stars.
Drake’s college career has been an injury- and suspension-filled one. Because of that, his numbers appear bleak, but don’t let that fool you. Drake only had 77 carries for 408 yards and 1 TD in 2015, but he also had a cracked rib, a sprained ankle, a concussion, a quad contusion and a broken arm. That’s not even considering that he broke his ankle in the 2014 season and only returned to the field at the beginning of the 2015 fall camp.
And don’t forget Drake did a lot more than run the ball. He had 29 receptions for 276 yards and 1 TD, and he also returned a kickoff for 95 yards and touchdown in the national championship game against Clemson.
Drake is a middle-round projection. He’s one tough player, and if he does face more injuries, he’s shown he can and will bounce back.
Both Henry and Drake will be at the 2016 NFL draft on April 28, but that’s only the first test. The second and more important test will be their next few years in the league.