TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Did you hear anything about Alabama football players Damien Harris or Shaun Dion Hamilton today? Probably not, which is the point. They haven’t been a topic of discussion for quite a while despite being considered important parts of the 2017 Crimson Tide.
Both are considered starters at key positions, the ones coaches felt they could rely on the most this time last year.
Both had good seasons in 2016, although they fell victim to the 15-game grind.
Both are now being overshadowed in the public eye by high-profile teammates as running back and linebacker are the two deepest positions on the team. Few seem to notice that they’re the ones still leading their position groups through daily drills in fall camp.
“We’re ’Bama. We just reload,” Hamilton said. “Everybody is going to embrace the challenge.”
With these two, though, the challenge also is how to deal with suddenly being overlooked outside of the football building.
Last season, Hamilton was largely in the shadow of Reuben Foster, who won the Butkus Award as the nation’s most outstanding linebacker. Now it’s Rashaan Evans, who has been one of the players most talked about this summer, while younger players such as Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses wait for their chance.
Harris, of course, saw Bo Scarbrough become Alabama’s leading rusher in November and explode in the postseason. With 19 carries for 180 yards, he keyed the Peach Bowl playoff semifinal win against Washington.
Go back to the beginning of the season and the roles were reversed. After beating out the young collection of running backs on the roster, Harris had the unenviable task of trying to follow Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry as the Crimson Tide’s primary tailback.
“[Running backs coach Burton] Burns tells us all the time, we came here to play running back so everybody knows we can run the ball,” Harris said. “But you need those other intangibles — blocking, being able to run routes right, catch out of the backfield. That kind of stuff makes you a complete player.”
That was Harris. Against Southern California in the neutral-site opener in Dallas, Scarbrough had 11 carries 36 yards. Harris had nine carries and a team-leading 138 yards in his first career start.
He ended up leading the team with 146 carries for 1,037 rushing yards, putting him in some elite company in Alabama history. Harris became the 15th member of the Crimson Tide’s single-season 1,000-yard club, joining Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram Jr., Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and Henry during the Nick Saban era.
But while Harris did his most damage against ranked opponents (863 yards) and in the second half (8.0 yards per carry, compared to 6.5 during the first two quarters), he got beat up during the stretch run and the coaches turned to Scarbrough.
“Learned a lot last year,” Harris said. “I know that I have to do a better job of finishing as well as everybody on the team because if we can all do it individually and collectively as a team we’ll be able to finish better.
“Every individual on this team thinks that we have to do more to finish. You hear Coach Saban talk all the time about sustaining, so that’s kind of where we are.”
Harris didn’t play on A-Day while recovering from a sprained foot. Coaches were being cautious with him, but it only continued his slide into short-term obscurity.
Hamilton’s was much more abrupt, as he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during the second quarter of the SEC Championship Game.
At the time, Hamilton ranked third in team tackles with 64, including 9 for a loss. He was considered a key run-stopper, as 52 of his tackles were on carries, but was better against the pass than most fans realize.
There's a reason you should know Alabama ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton. pic.twitter.com/8j5aKFrdhP
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) July 14, 2017
“He’s worked really hard,” Saban said at the beginning of camp, noting that Hamilton was close to being back to full strength following the surgery. “I think he’s confident that he’s healthy.
“He has a very, very good understanding of our defense, what we do, the concepts of how we play things, and that’s going to benefit him.”
During A-Day, when Hamilton was still on the recovery trail, he was named a captain for the White Team, along with senior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and junior defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne.
But there’s been little buzz about him since. At SEC Media Days, the voting for the preseason all-conference team had Hamilton fourth among linebackers, putting him on the second team. The first team featured Evans, LSU’s Arden Key and Georgia’s Roquan Smith, who landed one more vote than Hamilton.
It obviously didn’t sit well with him, as evidenced by a tweet sent out later that day.
The disrespect and doubt at an all time high after you get hurt. SDH gonna leave his legacy I promise you that.
— Shaun Dion Hamilton (@shaundion11) July 14, 2017
“I don’t even care about all that,” Hamilton said recently. “I’m just happy to be back on the field with my teammates.”
Harris didn’t even get a sniff of the All-SEC list as voters opted for LSU’s Darrius Guice and Georgia’s Nick Chubb on the first team, Scarbrough and Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway on the second, and Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb and UGA’s Sony Michel on the third. But in fairness to them, everyone except Scarbrough and Michel had more rushing yards than Harris in 2016.
Alabama also looks like it might use all of its running backs this season, with sophomore Josh Jacobs, freshman Najee Harris and freshman Brian Robinson Jr. eager to get reps. As Hamilton alluded, it’s just part of playing at Alabama under Saban. The coach is used to having some of his younger players get more attention than the veterans he knows he can count on.
“Everybody’s different, everybody has their own skills that maybe somebody else isn’t as good at,” Harris said. “But that’s what kind of makes us unique, is when you have so many different guys that have different things that they can bring to this offense.
“That’s what makes it scary.”