Why Nick Saban RBs Are Failing in NFL
By Jim Weber
Alabama head coach Nick Saban is on the warpath toward an unprecedented fourth national title in five years. Yet shockingly, there’s one thing he’s currently failing at: Sending running backs to the NFL that succeed at the next level.
And NFL scouts are starting to take note by making “Nick Saban running backs” the league’s newest draft bugaboo following in the heels of “Penn State running backs,” “Florida wide receivers” and “Jeff Tedford quarterbacks” as groups of college players doomed for failure on Sundays.
Reads a recent article in the National Football Post:
With his track record of sending players to the draft during his tenure at Alabama, there seems little doubt about Nick Saban’s ability to produce and prepare players for the NFL. But the trade of [Trent] Richardson certainly boils up some doubts about Crimson Tide running backs of recent vintage. In the past three seasons, Alabama has had two first-rounders (Richardson and former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram) and a second-round pick (Eddie Lacy). There are legitimate questions about New Orleans’ choice of Ingram, who has only 10 starts in two-plus seasons and has averaged just 3.8 yards, in 2011. Lacy hasn’t gotten off to the fastest start in Green Bay and is dealing with a concussion. And now Richardson has been traded despite having been the third overall pick in 2012… [Glen] Coffee retired after one season in San Francisco….
“One thing we’ve got to remember is that (Saban) always has great offensive lines, and that helps his backs,” said one area scout. “And, truth be told, with the way Nick uses his backs, he probably rubs some tread off the tires. But, hey, no excuses, we’ve got to do a better job of (evaluating) these guys.”
The NFL career stats of his former backs are in fact haunting:
Glen Coffee (retired after 1 season): 83 ATT, 226 YDS, 2.7 AVG, 1 TD
Mark Ingram: 295 ATT, 1,107 YDS, 3.8 AVG, 10 TDs
Trent Richardson: 311 ATT, 1,090, 3.5 AVG, 12 TDs
Eddie Lacy (thru 1 game): 15 ATT, 51 YDS, 3.4 AVG, 1 TD
No of these Alabama backs has ever had a 1,000-yard NFL season. And Saban’s running backs at LSU (LaBrandon Toefield, Domanick Davis, Justin Vincent, Alley Broussard, Joseph Addai) and Michigan State (Marc Renaud, Sedrick Irvin, Lloyd Clemons) weren’t much more successful except for Addai’s first two seasons in the league.
So what exactly is the reason for this?
Maybe Saban’s offensive lines make his running backs look better than they are and they probably are a little less fresh because of the pounding they take in college.
But in my mind, the real reason is that the type of back Saban typically uses in his offense isn’t made for the NFL game. Guys like Ingram, Richardson and Lacy are all plodding between-the-tackles runners that act as human battering rams. The NFL game has changed dramatically over the years and you don’t see guys like Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, Jerome Bettis, and Christian Okoye anymore.
Being a successful running back is all about having that explosive burst of speed for cutback runs and breaking it to the outside like Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy.
This reminds me of Florida’s wide receivers during Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘N Gun days, speedy-but-undersized guys like Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green and Travis Taylor. NFL teams tried to make them primary receivers instead of correctly placing them as slot receivers, and then acted shocked when the players failed.
Fortunately, it only takes one positive sample to buck a negative stereotype.
NFL teams and the public were wary of Penn State running backs after Blair Thomas, Ki-Jana Carter and Curtis Enis flamed out. Then, all of a sudden, Larry Johnson rushed for nearly 1,800 yards in 2005 and ‘06. Scouts were sure Jeff Tedford quarterbacks like Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith and Joey Harrington were a sign to stay away from his proteges until that Aaron Rodgers guy became the best player in the NFL.
As for Florida wide receivers, well, we’re admittedly still waiting on one to break out at the next level.
The good news for Saban - and the rest of America’s sanity - is that Alabama currently has a running back unlike any Crimson Tide back in a long time. At 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds with a 4.43 40-yard dash, sophomore running back T.J. Yeldon is the rare running like Peterson who can combine tremendous power and speed.
When he’s eligible for the 2015 NFL Draft, I expect him to go very high, blow everyone away and put to bed this silly notion that “Nick Saban running backs” can’t make it in the NFL.