SAN JOSE, Calif. — In four years at Alabama, Damien Harris has shared the backfield with several runners who either have or will play in the NFL.
From Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake in 2015, to Bo Scarbrough the next two years, to his current running mates Najee Harris and Joshua Jacobs, the top-ranked Crimson Tide (14-0) have always had a variety of running threats to fuel their offense.
It’s been a constant of Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama with Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon among the other runners who helped build a dynasty on their way to the NFL.
“Being a running back at the university is something that we take a lot of pride in,” Damien Harris said. “So every day, every guy in that room goes in with the mentality of upholding the standard that guys before us have set. … All those guys that laid the foundation for us and built a legacy within that room. Every day it’s our job to uphold to that standard. Every day we just go in with the mentality we’re going to be the best players we can be, be the best unit we can be.”
With talented passer Tua Tagovailoa leading the offense this season, the running backs have gotten overshadowed at times despite some impressive accomplishments.
All three backs have topped 1,000 yards rushing in their careers, with Damien Harris’ 6.47 yards per carry in his career ranking third all-time among SEC backs with at least 400 attempts.
Jacobs was the MVP in the SEC title game win over Georgia after rushing for 83 yards and two touchdowns, while Najee Harris is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in two seasons.
“We always like to have two or three guys at that position that can play,” Saban said. “I think it keeps everybody fresh. It keeps everybody healthy rather than having one guy that’s carrying the ball maybe a lot of turns every game and they get wore down as the season goes on. We’ve been fortunate to have three guys that have made a real impact at that position, different guys in different games.”
Having three capable backs keeps all of them fresh late in the game when Alabama relies more heavily on the run to close out victories.
That was the case in the semifinal against Oklahoma when the Tide ended the game with nine straight runs that ran out the clock and prevented any comeback attempt by the Sooners.
“I think the drive we had against Oklahoma last week to kind of finish out the game on the ground with the ball in our hands and a victory formation, that’s the best formation in football,” Damien Harris said. “For us to be able to do that I think it shows we improved a lot on offense and an area we’re able to get better at.”
Clemson has its own dangerous running game led by Travis Etienne, who has rushed for 1,573 yards at an average of 8.3 yards per clip. Etienne has scored 23 touchdowns, providing a capable complement to the passing game led by freshman Trevor Lawrence.
Etienne preserved the Tigers’ perfect season when he ran for 203 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning 2-yard run, in a 27-23 come-from-behind victory over Syracuse in September.
“He’s a really great running back,” Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses said. “He’s fast, efficient, good body movement. He’s a really great running back. He really could fit in as an SEC running back if he wanted to. For him to be over there at Clemson, that’s a blessing for him. He’s going to be a real challenge for us.”
Etienne knows he’s in for a challenge as well against Alabama’s always stout defense led by All-American defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. The Tide have held five opponents under 100 yards in the game and are giving up just 3.5 yards per carry.
The Tigers ran for just 63 yards on 33 carries in last year’s loss to Alabama in the CFP semifinals, their lowest rushing total in their past 33 games.
“It is the best defense I’ve played this season,” Etienne said. “It presents a huge challenge for me and the offensive line. We’re excited for the challenge. You don’t want to go against lesser competition, you want to go against the best and Alabama is the best so we’re going to have to come out and play our A game and try to establish the run.”