TUSCALOOSA — The runners shuffle in and out, taking breaks when they’re not breaking tackles and getting plenty of time to catch their breath not just passes.
Then comes the fourth quarter when No. 2 Alabama still has a steady supply of fresh tailbacks to throw at weary defenders. The Crimson Tide has employed that three-tailback system with brutal efficiency and fashioned the Southeastern Conference’s top running game in the process.
By the fourth quarter, Glen Coffee, Roy Upchurch and/or Mark Ingram are still going strong and the defenders are showing the ill effects.
“Some of the same cuts that weren’t there early in the game, the running backs are making in the fourth quarter,” Tide center Antoine Caldwell said. “They’re missing tackles, taking bad angles. That’s because of fatigue. They’re getting tired.
“That’s what having fresh running backs can do to help your football team out.”
Alabama (8-0) has a steady supply of those going into Saturday’s game with Arkansas State(4-3).
First there is the star. Coffee is the league’s No. 4 rusher with 838 yards, six touchdowns and a healthy 6.6-yard average per carry. He hasn’t had to be a workhorse, only reaching 20 carries twice.
Then there’s the kid. Ingram is a bulldozing freshman who is ninth in the SEC with 420 yards and also has run for six TDs.
Finally, there’s Upchurch, Mr. Versatile. He has 320 yards, leads the backs with nine catches and was the workhorse late against Tennessee. Upchurch set up one touchdown late in the third quarter and ran for another in the fourth in a 29-9 win.
The combination has worked for the Tide, averaging a league-high 205 yards on the ground and leading the SEC in time of possession.
Besides the yardage and ball control, Coach Nick Saban sees other benefits to the tailback trifecta. Alabama still has a fresh back in the fourth quarter and the group has mostly been able to sidestep injury since they haven’t absorbed as much wear and tear.
It’s not as if they present a dramatically different style. Upchurch and Coffee are both right about 200 pounds and Ingram is listed at 215 pounds.
Upchurch has played frequently in third-down situations, but has also sprinkled in 91 yards against Arkansas and 86 against Tennessee. He has also lined up at fullback in recent games.
It’s a new role for the 201-pound Upchurch. “This is my first time playing fullback, so I guess I need to eat my Wheaties,” he joked.
It took Upchurch more than cereal to forge a bigger role on the offense. The former Parade All-American admittedly was resistant to buying into Saban’s way of doing things last season both academically and on the field. That seems to have changed.
For Upchurch, buying into the Saban system was an easy decision. He didn’t want to be buried on the bench any more.
“It’s kind of bad being at the bottom,” he said. “You know what you’re capable of doing and knowing that you can help a good football team. So once you really think about that, you don’t want to do it.”