TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At the close of last season, running back Jalston Fowler could have reasonably expected to take more snaps on offense when he returned to the University of Alabama for his junior year. Trent Richardson was off for a career in the NFL and the No. 3 tailback on the depth chart was poised to rise to No. 2 behind Eddie Lacy, the presumed starter.
As it turns out, Fowler might take more snaps this season, just not at his usual position.
The 6-foot-1, 242-pound wrecking ball is changing one spot in the I-formation for another. Instead of dotting the "I", Fowler has been practicing leading the charge from the H-Back position. There's been no indication that he'll give up his running back duties altogether, but as tight end Michael Williams put it, he's too skilled to keep off the field when Lacy or another back is in the game.
"He's big. He's strong. He has good blocking skills. He can catch out of the backfield," Williams said. "He's somebody that can play running back also, but when he's not in there, as good as he is you don't want him coming off the field, so he helps us at H-Back."
Fowler's former high school coach, Kerry Stevenson, spoke with TideNation this spring and raved about his former running back's natural athleticism.
“You’re talking about a kid that’s 6-feet and can stand up under a basketball goal and dunk with two hands," Stevenson said. "He can stand in one place and do a somersault. It’s incredible.”
The experiment with Fowler comes as a reaction to both Alabama's depth at running back, as well as a lack of experience at H-Back. Lacy is the clear No. 1 tailback, but he won't be the only one carrying the football on Saturday. T.J. Yeldon is making a push for playing time. The true freshman has come on strong since enrolling in February and dazzling fans at the annual A-Day scrimmage, racking up more than 100 total yards. Redshirt freshman Dee Hart, who signed with Alabama as a Parade All-American and top-10 running back out of high school, has recovered from last year's injury and could see time in the backfield as well.
The situation at H-Back is less rosy. The graduation of Brad Smelley to the NFL created a vacuum at the position. The top two candidates this spring -- redshirt sophomores Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones -- combined for two catches last season. The experiment of moving linebacker Brent Calloway to H-Back continues, but returns have been mixed, and true freshman Kurt Freitag is an unknown as of yet.
Given Fowler's size, speed and hands, coupled with the roster outlook, the move to H-Back was almost predestined.
"I'm pretty sure he's going to be a big handful," said linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Nico Johnson came away from Saturday's scrimmage surprised. The senior linebacker expected the defense to struggle in the first scrimmage of the fall, as it's apt to do, but witnessed something entirely different.
Johnson said he's never been at a camp with so much focus from the players. He said they understand the opportunity in front of them and Saturday was just a reflection of that.
"Effort, toughness, the want-to, the will to do everything right was there," Johnson said. "... It was pretty much like a game-type atmosphere out there, because everybody was so high-intensity and just flying around having fun."
Doing something different
Last season, Trent Richardson did more than just run the football. The Heisman Trophy finished third on the team with 29 catches, three going for touchdowns. This year, more from the tailbacks in the passing game, said quarterback AJ McCarron.
"We’re going to need to do some different things, free release the back, screens, all types of things," he said. "It’s the same game we’ve always played, but we’re going to need our running backs to be able to catch the ball if it’s spread out, whatever, so you can have different matchups in the game, and create some mismatches."