What Trey Sanders' injury means for Alabama in 2019 and why Derrick Henry comes to mind
Trey Sanders came to Alabama ready to hit the ground running.
Much was made about the 5-star’s comment on National Signing Day that he planned to win the Heisman Trophy as a true freshman. It didn’t matter to him that he was set to share a backfield with fellow former 5-star recruit Najee Harris. Sanders became the top-rated running back recruit in the country despite the fact that he shared backfields with fellow blue-chip recruits like Noah Cain and T.J. Pledger at IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.).
So no, Sanders didn’t plan on letting a shared backfield slow him down. But as we found out Saturday morning, Sanders won’t have a chance to deliver on his Heisman hopes as a true freshman. He’s expected to miss the entire 2019 season because of a foot injury that was suffered in Thursday’s scrimmage.
With the loss of Sanders, as well as the NFL departures of Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris, the workload of Najee Harris now becomes one of the big questions of Alabama’s season.
We know that from a depth standpoint, Alabama is in a very different place that it’s been in recent memory. We also know that Brian Robinson is expected to take on a bigger role, just as he did last year. Saban praised his strides as a sophomore, and now more than ever, it seems inevitable that he’ll see an increase in the 63 carries that he got last year.
But I’m starting to wonder if 2015 Derrick Henry might be on the minds of the Alabama coaching staff.
Let me explain.
You see, Henry’s Heisman Trophy campaign was the backbone of the Alabama offense that year. Everyone knew the 6-3, 242-pound back could handle more than the 172 carries that he got playing alongside T.J. Yeldon in 2014. Needless to say, 395 carries for Henry that year was quite the bump.
With the Sanders injury, the question is worth asking — are we in for something similar with Najee Harris?
The knee-jerk reaction is to say “of course not. It’s 2019, man. Alabama has Tua Tagovailoa and the best receiving corps in America. Why put so much of that responsibility on Harris?”
(If I just took your comment word-for-word, my bad. I’m sure you have another way to trash this take.)
Well, here’s why. And for the record, I’m not saying “Najee Harris is about to get 395 carries this year.” But could he get 300? I’d put some odds on that.
If the expectation is that the former 5-star recruit is off to the NFL after 2019, Alabama could decide that this is finally a situation that calls for a true feature back, unlike the past 3 seasons when the most carries a Bama back had for the year was when Damien Harris had 150 in 2018 (that’s the only time an Alabama back averaged double-digit carries since Henry’s 2015 season). Could the fresh, motivated Najee Harris double that? Absolutely.
He’s listed as 10 pounds less than Henry, who obviously was a specimen even for an Alabama running back (just ask Mark Ingram about that). In Henry’s first 2 seasons playing in shared backfields, he had 207 carries. Harris had 178. In that 2-year, pre-Heisman stretch for Henry, he averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Harris averaged 6.5.
Ah, but what about the passing game, you ask? Doesn’t that suggest there won’t be that many carries to go around?
Not exactly. It’s easy to forget that as much work as Henry got in 2015, Jake Coker threw the ball 393 times. Compare that to 355 for Tagovailoa last year. Granted, Tagovailoa was far more efficient.
Still, the point remains. Tagovailoa’s pass attempts don’t have to take some steep decline in order for Harris to step into a Henry-like role (it’s also easy to forget that Kenyan Drake still had over 100 touches from scrimmage that year). I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see Alabama try to run the ball more as a whole this year in order to keep Tagovailoa out of as many empty-backfield sets. That, I believe, could have happened with or without Sanders.
This could be a development that happens more organically than we think. That’s what happened in 2015 when Henry only averaged 16.8 carries in the first 4 games, including an average of 18 against a pair of Top 25 teams.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Wouldn’t that be risky to put that much wear and tear on Harris? Is there a chance that he’ll break down at the end of the season? Sure. There’s a chance that he’ll do that with 200 carries, too. Alabama didn’t let any late-season fatigue concerns curb Henry’s workload in 2015. He averaged a whopping 36.5 carries in those final 4 games, which obviously fueled Alabama’s national title.
(Well, let’s never forget the brilliant game that Lane Kiffin called with Coker in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State when the Spartans completely sold out on stopping Henry and still managed to get blown out.)
In a perfect world, Alabama doesn’t need Harris to tote the rock like that. Conventional wisdom suggests that the passing game will move the ball downfield more than enough so that Harris isn’t getting 40-plus carries in a given game.
But I keep thinking back to what Harris said after the 28-point loss to Clemson in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship. Here’s what I wrote about that subject earlier in the offseason:
Nick Saban told Harris that he was saving wear and tear on his body by keeping his workload limited in his first 2 years (Harris has yet to carry the ball more than 13 times in a game). When Harris was asked about that philosophy after Alabama’s national championship drubbing to Clemson — he had 9 carries — he didn’t hold back on his desire to get more touches.
“That’s what people say,” Harris said via the San Francisco Chronicle. “It might be right, but at the same time I feel like not everybody’s the same. The way I train my body for certain stuff, to take hits … I understand why people are saying that, but I guess we have two different ways of thinking.
“I know what comes with this position and I know what happens if I get a lot of carries at an early age. My future (later in life) could be barely walking. But not everybody’s the same. There are a lot of examples of people walking now and doing good, and they had a lot of carries when they were my age.
“Again, it’s nothing I can control. But if it was me, I’d carry 20 times a game.”
Call me crazy, but that sounds like someone who’s chomping at the bit for this opportunity. And if you don’t believe that, perhaps you missed Harris trying to hurdle dudes in the open field during Alabama’s spring game.
With this injury news to Sanders, it finally makes sense for Alabama to get back to having a true feature back and not simply riding the hot hand. Harris was a benefactor and a victim of that. Now, he can be the biggest benefactor of Alabama’s new backfield situation.
If he has it his way, he’ll follow Henry’s 2015 footsteps to New York … and to the top of the college football mountain.