College football coverage these days is done with a microscope. The easy access to instant replay, and an abundance of former players, former coaches and fans who are X-and-O savants (there are some) can result in breaking down plays to the atomic level. How was the tight end’s footwork when he engaged the linebacker? How often does Alabama run to the left off a particular motion? How did a particular defensive line stunt affect the push up front?
Far be it from me to make a terrible pun about a fictional Alabama running back, but sometimes you can’t see the Forrest for the trees — and “Run, (insert any running back name here), Run!” might have been the easiest answer.
In simpler terms, when watching the replay of the Duke game, there were not a lot of instances where the running back hit the hole with authority and moved forward. Too often, the Alabama backs seemed to meander through downtown Atlanta like I-85.
That’s not to be too harshly critical. It’s certainly not to say that the offensive line couldn’t get better. Because of off-the-field circumstances, Alabama started (and finished) with a talented but inexperienced redshirt, Jerome Ford, as its starter and finisher. That’s also not to say the offensive line was perfect — inevitably in an opening game, there’s a search for chemistry, some shuffling of personnel. But sometimes there were holes that weren’t hit explosively. Ford had a solid touchdown run after Duke had wearied. Brian Robinson had a twisting, tackle-breaking run after catching a pass and scored once in short yardage. Najee Harris, who was on the sidelines for the first quarter (as was Robinson) looked good on one 12-yarder. But there was also some dancing, and Nick Saban made it clear on Monday that he isn’t there to teach ballet.
“I can't speak for them,” Saban said when asked about “rhythm” at his media opportunity. “I don't know if they were or weren't (in rhythm). But I know this much, there's a certain way that you're supposed to run the ball on certain plays. You've got to ... have confidence in that, and that's the thing we want to focus on with those guys. If that takes rhythm to do that, then we need to improve their rhythm. If it takes more eye control and eye discipline to see what you're supposed to see and respond the way you should, then that's what we need to do.
“I think every back is different in terms of (strengths). Derrick Henry was a guy around here (and) the more he carried the ball, the stronger he got. Other guys do better when they're fresh. When we can sub guys in, they all do a little better.”
There is not going to be another Henry for a generation or so, but Alabama has steadily had such good backs in the Saban Era (Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, Trent Richardson, Henry, Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs to name a few) that it was automatically assumed that there was no need to worry about the position. There may not be, after all is said. Najee Harris has been Alabama’s leading rusher in two CFP Championship Games. The playing rotation will be more stable with no one stuck in the doghouse instead of standing on the field. Perhaps there will be frequent rotation. But Saban’s tone on Monday made it clear he was seeking improvement.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt