Editor's note: From now until the start of spring camp on March 16, TideNation will count down the 12 most intriguing players to watch on the Alabama football roster. Today we look at running back Kenyan Drake.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Barring injury or some catastrophic setback, T.J. Yeldon is a given for the University of Alabama. The rising sophomore became the first rookie in school history to rush for 1,000 yards this past season, an accomplishment that neither Eddie Lacy, Trent Richardson nor Mark Ingram can claim despite their lofty placement in the pantheon of Crimson Tide running backs.
If there was any doubt who Alabama's next great running back would be when Lacy left, that question was answered definitively by every one of Yeldon's 1,239 total yards and 13 touchdowns. The former blue-chip prospect led the team in rushing for much of the season and finished with just 29 fewer carries than Lacy, who earned First Team All-SEC honors.
Now that Lacy is off to a career in the NFL, the question is no longer who the top dog will be at running back, but rather who his sidekick will become. The answer, as Lacy put it, isn't so simple.
"That's a tough one," he said. "I have no idea. … However they decide to do it, I'm pretty sure they'll be the same way T.J. and I were this year, if not better."
Said Alabama coach Nick Saban: "We have one guy coming back that rushed for a 1,000 yards. We have another guy that carried the ball a few times as a freshman, and two guys that got hurt that may or may not be able to come back and play that position very well."
While Kenyan Drake lacks the experience of a Jalston Fowler or Dee Hart, he might be best equipped to become Yeldon's backup. Both Fowler and Hart are health risks after major knee operations last season, as Saban pointed out, and while Drake carried the ball just 42 times as a true freshman, he hasn't shown many holes in his game. In fact, he might have been the most explosive tailback on the roster. At least his numbers indicate as much.
Drake had a better yards per carry average than either Lacy or Yeldon in 2012. He averaged 6.7 yards per touch and found the end zone once every 8.4 carries, compared to Lacy and Yeldon, who scored every 12 and 14.6 carries, respectively.
Drake, the former Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year in 2011, did have a hiccup during his freshman season, as he was suspended for a game against Western Carolina for violation of team rules. While Saban didn't fly off the handle about the transgression that caused the benching, insisting that the problem wasn't anything significant or bad, he did point out that it wasn't the first such instance of poor behavior from the talented rookie.
"We think he is a good person and are certainly excited about his future," Saban said at the time. "But he also has to learn that if you don’t do the right thing, there are consequences for it."
Drake, though, got back on the horse the very next week and ran the ball 10 times for 67 yards against Auburn, his high-water mark for the season.
If he keeps his nose clean and continues on his upward trajectory this offseason, he could be in for more work behind Yeldon in 2013. Even if Fowler and Hart return to 100 percent, there's no reason to believe they'll beat out Drake. Fowler will likely see time at H-back and Hart could be in for a new role after back-to-back torn knee ligaments.
Drake will, however, have to beat out another up-and-comer this spring in early enrollee Derrick Henry. Like Drake a year ago, Henry comes in with high expectations as the Florida Gatorade Player of the Year and the highest-rated prospect Alabama signed in the class of 2013. The Yulee, Fla., product set a national record for career rushing yards and despite his unorthodox frame (6-foot-3, 242 pounds) he and coaches insist he'll have every opportunity to play running back in Tuscaloosa.