ARLINGTON, Texas—Nick Saban is not one for singling players out in the preseason.
Asked which newcomers would be key this year during SEC Media Days and fall camp, the Alabama coach would give the standard, “a lot of them.”
However, through pursed lips caused by question annoyance, Saban would almost always mention T.J. Yeldon as a youngster who has impressed.
And America saw that firsthand Saturday night when the true freshman running back exploded for 137 yards on 12 touches in No. 2 Alabama’s 41-14 throttling of No. 8 Michigan at Cowboys Stadium.
It’s not often a true freshman racks up over 100 yards in his first college game. In fact, he was the first true freshman running back to do so in Crimson Tide history.
Yeldon, who enrolled early and participated in Alabama’s spring practices, didn’t look like a newbie out there, but more like a veteran. He was patient, waited for holes to open and then burst through them, tacking on yards upon yards after contact. He showed flashes of Adrian Peterson when he was a freshman at Oklahoma.
Yeldon’s dazzling performance didn’t surprise his teammates in the least.
“I knew he was capable of that,” senior center Barrett Jones said. “We’re used to freshmen running backs around here having an impact. That’s exactly what I expected from him. Certainly I think he may be the next great one in a long line of running backs.”
Added linebacker Nico Johnson: “It’s no surprise because he does it everyday at practice.”
Yeldon came into the game early in the first quarter and his inaugural rush was 14 yards for a first down. The Tide continued to feed him the ball until they got inside the Michigan 10. His runs would eventually set up Alabama’s first score.
By the end of the first half, Yeldon led his team with 67 rushing yards, the longest a 40-yard blast to begin the second quarter that started a drive Alabama would score on and take a 24-0 lead.
Yeldon would find the end zone in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard run to give the Tide their final 41 points.
In year’s prior, Alabama has heavily relied on a primary back like Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson. Junior Eddie Lacy, who has backed up both of those players, had been groomed to be next. But turf toe and a sprained ankle has Lacy banged up. Enter Yeldon and Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart. Alabama used a stable of running backs to out-rush Michigan 232 yards to 69.
“It’s amazing,” left guard Chance Warmack said. “We’ve got four different guys who can bring something different to the table.”
Durability at any position is an issue, but especially at running back with the amount of carries they get per game. Saban trusts Lacy. He’s the most experienced back and he’s learned under All-Americans and Heisman recipients. But Saban will continue to distribute the carries among his four tailbacks rather than bank on two or three guys to get the job done.
“We want to have as many play as deserve to play because they can contribute to the success of the team and hopefully we’ll create roles for those guys and they’ll get those opportunities in the future,” he said.
Of course Alabama’s running game wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the nation’s best offensive line, a unit that completely gashed Michigan’s defensive front by establishing the line of scrimmage early and often.
“It just shows the nation this is not the complacent Alabama people were expecting,” Jones said. “We’re hungry.”
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