MORGANTON, N.C. — B.J. Emmons’ eyes sparkled a little when talking about Alabama’s running back depth chart.
With Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake both moving on to the NFL, the Crimson Tide returns just two scholarship running backs from last year’s national championship team.
Emmons — along with fellow 2016 running back signee Joshua Jacobs — steps into a situation where Alabama is both thin and inexperienced at running back for the first time during Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.
“It’s a beautiful situation, really. It’s gorgeous actually,” Emmons told SEC Country. “Just having two running backs, and having two more come in there on scholarship. I feel like I’m stepping into a good situation.”
Emmons, a four-star prospect out of Morganton, N.C., is on track to qualify academically and is scheduled to join the rest of Alabama’s 2016 class on campus this week. Emmons — who chose Alabama over Georgia, Florida and Tennessee — rushed for 2,417 yards and scored 41 total touchdowns as a senior at Freedom High School.
Not since 2012 when T.J. Yeldon burst onto the scene has there been an opportunity for a freshman to step in and contribute immediately at the running back position for Alabama. That year, Alabama returned Eddie Lacy, who was a rising junior with experience backing up guys like Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson on his resume.
Heading into the 2016 season, Alabama’s top two returners — Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris — are both green in terms of experience.
In the season before their first year as starters, Ingram (143 carries), Richardson (112), Yeldon (175) and Henry (172) all rushed 100 or more times, while Lacy ran it 95 times the year before he became the starter.
Scarbrough and Harris rushed a combined 64 times last season.
On National Signing Day and throughout the spring, Saban said there’d be opportunities for the incoming running backs to contribute because of Alabama’s lack of depth.
That possibility excites Emmons.
“It means a lot. It makes me ready to get to work,” Emmons said. “Nothing is going to be given to me, and that’s how I want it.”
It didn’t take long for Freedom High School football coach Brandon Allen to realize Emmons was better than most running prospects he had seen. Coaching his first game at Freedom in 2014, Allen got the full Emmons experience vs. rival East Burke in the season opener of Emmons’ junior year.
“I knew he was good, I knew he was talented, but I didn’t know how special he was until we played East Burke where he rushed for six touchdowns on eight carries,” Allen told SEC Country. “Watching him, you could certainly tell there was something different about him compared to the rest of the people on the field. They had no answer for him. I knew then we had a pretty special running back. He was breaking tackles, making long runs and pulling away from the defense.”
Emmons finished that Friday with touchdown runs of 54, 11, 71, 43, 25 and 3 yards, a record-setting performance. In all, he carried the ball 11 times for 250 yards.
That season, Emmons ran for 2,348 yards and 38 touchdowns. He rode that wave to earning scholarship offers from the likes of Clemson, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
It was around Emmons’ junior season that Alabama got involved in his recruitment. Alabama outside linebacker coach Tosh Lupoi was the first to visit the running back.
“Everybody in school was running up to me like, ‘Somebody from Alabama is here,’ and it was him,” Emmons recalled. “We talked for a little bit. He said they’d been watching me. A couple of weeks after that, I got a call from (director of player personnel) Jody Wright. I talked to him for a few minutes. Then I talked to Coach Lupoi. He handed the phone to Coach (Nick) Saban, and we talked for about 20 minutes. I was outside when all of this happened. He told me they were giving me a chance to earn a scholarship here.”
That initial meeting and phone call helped break the ice, and got the somewhat-reserved Emmons comfortable with Alabama’s coaching staff. Then came the visit.
“I fell in love instantly,” Emmons remembers. “I liked the atmosphere up there and the people. It’s Southern. I don’t really care to be around a lot of people that much, but everybody up there was very friendly. They care about football, and they’re behind you 100 percent of the way. It’s really something special about it because people take it so serious. Everybody is all about, ‘Roll Tide.’”
Emmons committed to Alabama in July 2015, and almost immediately shut down his recruitment. He had found his college football home, and detailed what set Alabama a part from the countless other programs in pursuit of his services.
“Discipline. They pay attention to detail,” Emmons said. “Going up there and seeing how they take meetings so serious was great. You really have to grow up quick. All of the stars and stuff are erased. If you go up there and you’re not humble, you’ll be humbled quickly. You’re not the greatest athlete anymore. It’s Alabama. Everything is serious.”
Life without Henry won’t be easy for Alabama’s backfield. He developed into the definition of a workhorse, carrying the ball 395 times for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman Trophy in his final season in Tuscaloosa.
The comparisons between Henry and whoever follows him next season will be made, but Emmons wants to be something different.
“A lot of people try to compare me to Derrick Henry which you really can’t do because it’s two different body styles,” Emmons said. “Whenever I talk to the coaches, there aren’t any comparisons. They say I can bring something different to the table. With me, I think I can probably do some of the things Derrick Henry couldn’t do like shifting around. He was more of a bruiser, getting up there and running straight at you. I feel like I can do that, but there are also other things I can do.”
If there is one area Emmons and Henry are similar, it’s their lack of experience in pass blocking coming out of high school.
Henry was a notoriously bad blocker early in his Alabama career,because he never had to do it at Yulee (Fla.) High School. He developed into one of the best blocking running backs in the country during his three seasons. Emmons hopes to do the same.
“Blocking wasn’t really one of my favorite things,” Emmons said with a smile. “I didn’t really block much in high school so it’s something that I’m going to have to improve on. It’s something that I know in the back of my head is going to be a little tough for me. Blocking is going to be the biggest thing I work on.”
At 6-foot, 220 pounds, Emmons described his running style “north and south,” but he can also make people miss and “make plays every time I touch the ball.”
Allen believes Emmons has what it takes to be an elite running back at the college level.
“Size and speed. He’s got the physical attributes that not many people have,” Allen said. “When you’re 220 to 225 pounds and can run a 4.4 40 (yard dash), you know that’s special. Not to mention that he’s got phenomenal hands. He catches the ball well. If he wasn’t a top running back, he could easily be a slot receiver. He could play linebacker, safety. Athletically, he’s got everything you want in a football player.”