TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jalston Fowler isn’t a magician with the football in his hand. There’s no rabbit in his hat, no enchanted saw to split the defense in two.
When Fowler takes the handoff, he doesn’t need those things. When he gets the ball and gets his wheels churning, he’s more bulldozer than sports car, more tractor-trailer than Speed Racer.
“I really don’t have speed but if I can get around the corner I’m going to get around there,” Fowler said, more self-aware than most junior’s you’d meet. “If I can make something happen outside then I’m going to try my best to make it happen.”
What Fowler does best is use his body. The mammoth, 6-foot-1 back doesn’t fit into the definition of a prototypical tailback. His 242-pound frame spills over into another class of ball-carriers. Think Jerome Bettis or T.J. Duckett.
“It’s like trying to hit a train. He’s huge,” said Adrian Hubbard, who at 6-foot-6, 248 pounds is no sprite at linebacker.
Said offensive lineman Chance Warmack: “Gotta get out of the way, man. He’ll run you over.”
Warmack said he’s never seen a running back as big as Fowler. Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Lacy are all shorter and at least 20 pounds lighter than Fowler. While Fowler may not possess their speed and agility, he makes up for it in strength and attitude.
Only three running backs with 50 or more touches averaged better than 6.9 yards per carry in the SEC. One was Lacy, one was LSU running back Alfred Blue, and the other was Fowler. With 56 carries in 2011, the Mobile, Ala., native ran for 385 yards and four touchdowns.
“He’s such an incredible back in terms of just hitting the hole,” Warmack said. “He’s really physical. I like that about him. He’s going to hit the hole regardless if there’s a defender or his own teammate. He’s going to try to score every time he gets the ball.
“He runs the ball hard all the time, like he has a purpose, and I really respect that.”
Opposing defenses have to respect his athleticism, too. He may not be a Houdini with the ball, but he can certainly make defenders look foolish. Against Ole Miss, Fowler broke free for a 69-yard touchdown, shooting right through the middle of the defense.
Kerry Stevenson, who coached Fowler at Vigor High School in Prichard, Ala., said he has a sneaky athleticism. In talking about Fowler, he described a series of one-handed interceptions on defense and bone-crushing runs that left Fowler with nothing but half a jersey, the football and six points on the board.
“He’s an incredible athlete,” Stevenson said. “You’re talking about a kid that’s 6-feet and can stand up under a basketball goal and dunk with two hands. He can stand in one place and do a somersault. It’s incredible.”
Fowler’s position with the Tide may be the biggest testament to his versatility on the football field. He came to Alabama as a two-way player, practicing at linebacker and running back his freshman year. Most kids in the SEC his size would have added weight and found themselves rushing the quarterback or blocking as a fullback. But not at Alabama. Coach Nick Saban and running backs coach Burton Burns liked the way he carried the ball and for the past two years, Fowler has found a permanent home at tailback.
Saban has had to lean on Fowler this spring with Lacy out and Blake Sims nursing a hip injury. Hart is still recovering from knee surgery last year and Yeldon has worn a heavy brace/wrap on his left wrist for more than a week. That leaves Fowler as the most viable option heading into A-Day on Saturday.
Saban said he’s been pleased with Fowler’s progress this spring. In a sea of scat backs and runners always going for the home run, it’s easy to appreciate the simple, straight-ahead running style of Fowler.
“He has demonstrated that he runs the ball well with his pads pointed north and south,” Saban said. “That doesn't mean he doesn't have some ability to cut and make people miss. He does. He's probably got better speed than people think.”
But speed isn’t what Saban is interested in with Fowler. It’s not often coaches can find a running back with Fowler’s size, and it’s best not to let that commodity go to waste.
“If you're a power pitcher and you get 26 outs throwing fastballs, you ought not lose the game in the bottom of the ninth throwing a changeup,” Saban said. “That's what I think. Jalston Fowler is what he is. He's a big guy who's hard to tackle and people don't like to tackle him.”
Defenses didn’t have much fun tackling anyone on the Crimson Tide in 2011. This year, it could become even more difficult. The offensive line has the potential to be even better with five experienced starters returning, and the size to impose their will in the fourth quarter. The average lineman comes in at 6-foot-5, 314 pounds.
“Those guys know what they’re doing,” Fowler said. “They get movement up front. It’s just great. I love running behind those guys.”
With 6-foot-5, 302-pound Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones leading the way at center and Fowler trailing behind, the Alabama running game could be something special again.
If there’s one thing for certain, when the Tide hit defenses in 2012, the wave of size and speed will leave more than a few black and blue.
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