TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One can try and empathize, but no one else really understands how it feels. To see the national title slip away has been mind-numbing for the Alabama football team, especially players like running back Damien Harris, who could only helplessly watch the final plays from the sideline.
“Losing the national championship with one second left on the clock, I still don’t know,” Harris said. “I remember people were asking me about it in the locker room right after the game, and I didn’t know what to say. And I still don’t know what to say.”
The thing is, he could have been talking about his lack of involvement in the game instead of how the Crimson Tide lost to Clemson, 35-31. Alabama understandably opted for more of a power rushing attack, and rode Bo Scarbrough after his 180 rushing yards on 19 carries against Washington in the Peach Bowl semifinal.
But Harris was the real workhorse of the running backs last season. He’s the one who gained 1,037 yards on 146 attempts and started 11 games before the College Football Playoff.
If one statistic about Harris stands out and explains his role last season it’s rushing touchdowns. While quarterback Jalen Hurts ran into the end zone 13 times and Scarbrough notched 11, Harris had just 2.
“None of that matters, who gets the ball more, who has the better stats,” said Harris while emphasizing a big-picture approach.
Few seem to appreciate how tough of a spot he’s in.
Go back a year ago, and one of the Crimson Tide’s biggest concerns was that there was no veteran running back for the offense to rely on, although that uncertainty was completely overshadowed by the quarterback competition eventually won by Hurts.
Moreover, whomever stepped up as Alabama’s primary tailback also would be following Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. In 2015, Henry established a new SEC single-season rushing record of 2,219 yards — topping the likes of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson (albeit in more games).
Of course, Harris was the one to step up. He’s the one who knew the offense best and quickly became the running back the Crimson Tide relied on the most. Despite being carted to the locker room with an ankle injury against Kent State, he averaged 69.1 rushing yards per game, which went up to 86.3 when Alabama faced one of its 10 ranked opponents.
However, his four 100-yard games against Southern California, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Texas A&M, all occurred during the first two months of the schedule. Over the last six games the only time he had double-digit carries was against Chattanooga (13 attempts, 91 yards).
In the playoff, Harris had nine carries for 30 yards vs. Washington, and his final stat line against Clemson was five carries for 24 yards. Even after Scarbrough got hurt, he still didn’t get the ball much.
In fairness to Harris, Alabama’s rushing game was having problems before Scarbrough suffered a fractured leg late in the third quarter. It went from having 10 carries for 71 yards in the first quarter, and 11 for 72 in the second, to just five for 21 in the third. The first three offensive possessions of the second half were three-and-outs, followed by the 68-yard touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard as Alabama went into the final 15 minutes ahead 24-14.
On Alabama’s first offensive snap of the fourth quarter Harris gained 13 yards. He only touched the ball twice more, a 3-yard gain on first down, and a 5-yard carry on fourth-and-1 after Clemson had taken the lead. You know the rest.
“We think Damien had a great year last year,” Nick Saban said. “I think he was hurt a bit toward the end of the season. Probably slowed him down a little bit.
“I think until he got injured he was probably our most consistent guy at that position, especially to do all things relative to third-down blocking, understanding protection, being a halfway decent receiver. I just think that if he could play at a high standard of consistency all the time, which he’s shown at times, but to be able to sustain that, I think that would certainly sort of be the next step for Damien because he’s certainly played some good football for us.”
“That was a little bit the whole deal at running back last year. As soon as a guy started to really look good, he’d get beat up a little bit.”
Only now the backfield is even more crowded.
If following a legend wasn’t difficult enough, Harris has numerous quality running backs behind him, including two in particular who fans can’t get enough of. Scarbrough physically reminds them of Henry and early-enrollee Najee Harris was rated by some recruiting services as being the best player in the Class of 2017.
T.J. Yeldon went through something similar playing ahead of Henry in 2014. Few seemed to remember that he was coming off a season with 1,108 rushing yards in 2012, and 1,235 in 2013, when Henry still was trying to figure out things. Things didn’t start to really click for the then-freshman until bowl practices.
But Yeldon didn’t have such a deep position group, either. Alabama also boasts sophomores Josh Jacobs and B.J. Emmons, and true freshman Brian Robinson, plus potentially Chadarius Townsend, who has been working with the wide receivers this spring.
It’s led to open speculation about how can the coaching staff keep everyone happy because as Saban’s pointed out numerous times over the years there’s only one ball.
However, Damien Harris (ankle), Scarbrough (leg), Jacobs (thigh) and Emmons (foot) all sat during Saturday’s first spring scrimmage. That left the early enrollees taking most of the snaps, giving them a chance to show what they can do.
“One of the strengths of the team is the running back position,” Saban said afterward. “We’ll have to find roles for some of those guys because they’re some of our best players at that position.”
Nevertheless, when healthy it’s No. 34 who leads the running backs through drills every day. He’s also the one Alabama makes available to reporters on a regular basis, and gets asked questions like how the players handled all the changes at offensive coordinator with the departures of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, and the addition of Brian Daboll from the New England Patriots.
“We didn’t really have a choice but to just kind of accept it,” he said. “You just have to have a positive outlook and be like, ‘Coach Saban wouldn’t put us in any sort of position that wasn’t beneficial for us.’ That’s how we looked at it, that he was only trying to do what was going to help us be the most successful. So at the end of the day, it’s what he says.”
That too was an answer that gives a glimpse about how the running back views his role on the Crimson Tide. He’s sort of like the football equivalent of the saying about the type of people one dates and the kind they marry.
Consequently, even with all of the players taking reps behind him, when Alabama lines up to play Florida State in 145 days it would be a shock if someone other than Damien Harris was in the backfield for the first play.
He’s still the Crimson Tide’s best every-down option in the backfield, the clear the leader of the running backs and someone who shouldn’t be overlooked.
“There’s always room for improvement, and there’s plenty of plays, plenty of situations last year where they have it on film where I didn’t do the right thing, I didn’t do what I was supposed to do,” Harris said. “Just looking at those things, I know there’s always something to improve on. And even the fact that I had a little success, that just makes me want to have even more success in the upcoming years. You can always get better and that’s what I’m trying to do.”