The new RB reality: Top recruits willing to split workload
Even before he had Alabama rolling to three national titles in four years, Nick Saban didn't bother catering to the egos of high school tailbacks. When Geismar, La., back Eddie Lacy signed in February 2009, the Tide hadn't won a national title under Saban, but the coach made no empty promises of carries. In fact, Saban told Lacy -- as he has told every back he has recruited -- that his goal is to get the most production out of the fewest carries possible.
"That's always one of my sales pitches for them," Saban said. "The shelf life of a running back is the shortest of any position in the NFL."
Even though he had a brilliant freshman season, T.J. Yeldon will not suddenly become a 30-carry back with Lacy headed to the NFL. Yeldon will wind up splitting carries with one or two other backs. Given Alabama's recent history, chances are good Yeldon will wind up splitting carries with a freshman. That could be Derrick Henry, the nation's all-time high school rushing yardage leader from Yulee, Fla., who enrolled in Tuscaloosa this month. Or it could be Altee Tenpenny, the North Little Rock, Ark., back who is committed to Alabama but is still considering Arkansas after a push from new Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema.
Brad Bolding, Tenpenny's coach at North Little Rock High, said Alabama coaches have stressed using multiple backs throughout the recruiting process. "It's unique how they recruit," Bolding said. "They tell you just flat-out that, 'Hey, we're going to run two or three backs in the game. The shelf life in the NFL is a lot longer.'"
According to the NFL Players Association, the average career of an NFL tailback lasts 2.57 years. The more pounding a player takes for free (in high school) or for a scholarship (in college), the less he can take for big money in the NFL. Because backs absorb the hardest hits whether they're carrying or blocking, they are the most at risk to suffer a career-ending injury on a given play. That has made tailback the most expendable position in the NFL, and it has forced Saban and other coaches to change how they use and recruit tailbacks. If high school tailbacks are smart, it should change how they choose a college program. The schools that can divide the workload should have the advantage.
"I think of it future-wise," said Lacy, the MVP of last season's BCS title game against Notre Dame. "A lot of running backs want to get the ball 20 or 30 times a game, but, at the same time, it wears your body down. So you don't really know how long you have."
Back when we worried about whether the Y2K bug would shut down our power grids, tailback recruits worried about carries. Would they be the man once they got to college? High school backs still worry about carries, but that attitude is changing as the importance of the odometer trickles down from the NFL. Now, the term "low-mileage back" has crept into the NFL draftnik's vocabulary. It's not an insult. It means a back has taken fewer hits at lower levels and therefore might have a longer career in the NFL.
Lacy is a prime example. In 2010, he split carries with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. In 2011, he split carries with Richardson. In 2012, he split carries with Yeldon. Ingram (572 collegiate carries) was a first-round pick (No. 28) in 2011. Richardson (540 collegiate carries) was a first-round pick (No. 3) in 2012. Lacy (355 collegiate carries) projects as a late first- or early second-round pick in 2013. That's a far cry from the SEC feature-back days of Herschel Walker, who carried 994 times in three seasons at Georgia before he entered pro football.
The last 1,000-carry back chosen in the first round of the NFL draft was Cedric Benson in 2005. Benson toted the ball 1,112 times at Texas from 2001-04. Longhorns coach Mack Brown loves his workhorse backs -- Ricky Williams carried 361 times in Brown's first year in Austin -- but even Brown has changed his philosophy. The Longhorns rushed for 2,229 yards in 2012, but they split carries among Johnathan Gray (149 carries), Joe Bergeron (127 carries) and Malcolm Brown (61 carries). At Georgia, Mark Richt divvied carries between freshmen Todd Gurley (222 carries) and Keith Marshall (117 carries) and came within a few yards of playing for the national title. With NFL teams counting every tick on the odometer, per-carry efficiency has become far more important than total yardage.
Saban said recruits have begun to comprehend the need to leave some tread on the tires for the next level, making the idea of sharing the spotlight easier to stomach. "A lot of these guys really realize that and understand," Saban said. "We've had two or three guys in each year who have been productive for us, and it's worked out well for us."
The sales job may become easier as high school coaches realize the same thing their college counterparts have. Instead of simply feeding Tenpenny this year, Bolding split carries between his senior star and junior Juan Day, who committed to Arkansas earlier this month. Besides the benefit to the players, the system might offer a strategic advantage. "I liked it," Bolding said. "If you have the ability to do that as a high school team, I recommend it. You get to the fourth quarter, and you're still pounding. ... You could see the other team wear down."
So take heed, elite high school backs. Beware the college coach who promises a multitude of carries. Fortunately, that breed of coach becomes more rare by the day as the college game wakes up to the need for a better division of labor in the backfield. "Their philosophies are changing slowly," Bolding said. "It's like anything else in football. What is the flavor of the month or flavor of the year? But I think this one is going to stick."