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Damien Harris Flying Under the Radar

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Harris led the team with 150 carries, which is the fewest for Alabama’s top rusher in a season during the Nick Saban era.

Alabama running backs don’t have the best NFL track records in recent years. While Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry did their part to repair that reputation towards the end of last season (Ingram also had an excellent 2017 season), Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon have done plenty to damage it.

All three of those backs entered the NFL with high expectations, and at least in the case of Richardson and Lacy, they drastically failed to live up to them. These days, Richardson seems to be struggling even in the American Alliance Football League.

But Alabama running backs, especially Damien Harris, enter this year’s NFL draft with far less stellar college numbers, and maybe finally just the right amount of expectations.

With Tua Tagovailoa becoming just the second Alabama quarterback to finish among the Top 2 for the Heisman Trophy, the Crimson Tide underutilized its star running backs in 2018. Last season, Alabama attempted 438 passes, which was the program’s third-most pass attempts in a season since 2008.

Furthermore, the Crimson Tide posted an average margin of victory of 31.5 during its 14 wins. Because of so many blowouts, Alabama’s offensive stars saw fewer touches as the team played very few meaningful fourth quarters.

Unlike in previous seasons, Alabama didn’t ride its backfield and offensive line to the national title game. Harris led the team with 150 carries, which is the fewest for Alabama’s top rusher in a season during the Nick Saban era.

Actually, the Crimson Tide have been straying from the lead-back formula for a few years. In 2016 and 2017, quarterback Jalen Hurts led the team in carries while Harris finished first among Alabama running backs in attempts with under 150 rushes.

During Harris’ freshman year, the Alabama offense was still very running back oriented. The aforementioned Henry led the way with 2,219 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns on 395 attempts in 2012. Even in seasons where Alabama split the backfield -- like with Henry and Yeldon in 2011 -- Crimson Tide running backs always recorded more than 150 attempts. During 2011, Henry and Yeldon both eclipsed 170 carries and 970 rushing yards.

With fewer opportunities, Harris still put together a tremendous college career. He posted a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons as a sophomore and junior, and he averaged 6.4 yards per carry during his career. Ingram, Yeldon, Richardson and Henry didn’t submit a yards per rush average as high as that over their college tenures.

During his senior season, Harris ran for 876 yards and nine touchdowns while registering a 5.8 yards per rush average. He only recorded two 100-yard rushing games, but he averaged more than 7.0 yards per carry in five contests.

Like his predecessors, Harris surely benefitted from running behind the elite Alabama offensive line, and unlike the previous Crimson Tide backs this decade. Surely, the best Alabama passing game ever didn’t hurt either. In 2018, the opposition game planned to stop Tagovailoa and not the Crimson Tide running attack.

But the advantage Harris possesses over Richardson, Lacy and the other Alabama backs entering the NFL is he will be fresher. In an era where NFL teams are very cognizant about the workloads of their running backs, that will be appealing to any back-needy franchise. With less wear-and-tear from college, it gives Harris a better chance of success at the next level.

Heck, Henry carried the ball more during his final college season than Harris did in his last two years at Alabama combined.

There aren’t a ton of big-named backs in this draft class either. After a resurgence at the position the last two years, it’s possible the NFL sees another first round come and go this year without a single running back drafted. Walter Football ranks both Alabama running backs, Josh Jacobs and Harris, first and second among the best backs available in the class and project they could be drafted in the first or second round.

That ranking is both good and bad for Harris. For one, he will hear his name called soon, but it could also mean unfair higher NFL expectations.

Still, Harris is flying under the radar compared to previous Alabama running backs in the draft over the last decade. But like a lot of them before him, he excels in short yardage situations and should receive the opportunity to become an NFL starter.