Najee Harris Looks to Balance Alabama’s High-Powered Offense

For twelve seasons as head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Nick Saban has created defensive star players. It is no surprise that he has also created the same impact on the offensive side of the ball. Since 2008, Alabama has continued a record of high-power, electrifying running backs. This offseason, the Tide are looking to bring back that high-power running game after relying on the arm of Heisman-Trophy runner-up in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. At times this past season, the Tide put too much pressure on Tagovailoa despite the explosive playmaking ability. Senior running back Damien Harris’ role reduced in favor of the passing game. Alabama often used junior running back Joshua Jacobs as an extra receiver outside of the typical run standards. And sophomore running back Najee Harris found himself splitting reps with Damien Harris and Jacobs.

Damien and Jacobs have now departed from the football program for the 2019 NFL Draft. Najee Harris is the only experienced running back returning. Last season, Harris accounted for 783 yards (second-most on the team) and four touchdowns on 117 rushing attempts. Harris averaged the team-highest yards per rushing attempt with 6.7 yards. The only other experienced running back with more than ten rushing attempts is Brian Robinson Jr. with 63 attempts for 272 yards and two touchdowns. With the Tide looking to create a high-power balance of throwing and running the ball, Harris needs to lead the running game. The Crimson Tide will also rely on Harris more with them on their fourth offensive coordinator in four years with new coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

Running Backs Flourish Under Nick Saban

Since Nick Saban has been the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, they have had six running backs become top-ten single-season rushing leaders in program history. This includes two Heisman Trophy winners in Mark Ingram (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015) in their first season as starters. Saban has never been a coach to shy away from the high-power passing offense for a traditional power run game. This is, despite, Saban giving the offensive playcalling and decision-making his coordinators. With Harris as the only returning running back with over 272 rushing yards, he will be the main contributor of the rushing game. Last season, he was the third-string running back on the depth chart behind Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. Najee Harris did account for the second-highest team rushing yards despite being the third-string running back.

Since 2007, the Crimson Tide have always relied on a two running back system to create an explosive offensive setting. The only time the Tide used one running back throughout the season was in 2015 with Derrick Henry. Harris’ 783 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 117 carries is impressive, but it is concerning as he might be the only reliable running back returning. This past season, the Tide relied on the arm of Tagovailoa too much as he suffered a slight ankle injury. With Harris being a more mature player, having experience with the team for an upcoming three seasons, and the Tide looking to solidify the run game, Harris can be a very explosive contributor to the Tide’s high-power offense.

Steve Sarkisian Looking to Restart Coaching Career

Steve Sarkisian has encountered a roller coaster of a coaching career and is recovering from another firing. He was previously the offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons for two very unsuccessful and lack lusting in 2017 and 2018. In the 2016-2017 NFL season, where the Falcons reached Super Bowl LI, they were ranked first in the league in points per game (33.8) and second in total yards per game (426). The next season, when Sarkisian took over as offensive coordinator, the Falcons’ offense dwindled to being the 15th scoring offense (22.1). This was due to the lack of efficiencies in the red zone and in the run game. Devonta Freeman’s production went down in terms of carries, touchdowns, and yardage. Due to the lack of efficiency with the Falcons’ high-power offense, Atlanta fired Sarkisian after the 2017-2018 season.

After spending 2016 as an offensive analyst, he will look to make the Tide more efficient and productive like last season. He could start with the passing offense, however one of the biggest issues is recuperating the offensive line and reloading the running game. Harris will start anew with the Tide’s offense with Sarkisian coming in and likely keeping the play system intact. Harris will be a much easier player to control and utilize than most of the high-elision players of the Falcons. Sarkisian is the fourth offensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide in four seasons.

Harris as a One-Dimensional Back in 2109

While Harris has the potential of a breakout season, he might be a one-dimensional back for Alabama in 2019. Last season, while Harris was generating great success on the ground, Josh Jacobs provided more input in the passing game. Jacobs’ role as a flex running back and extra target for Tagovailoa made him a highly valuable player for the Tide’s third-ranked scoring offense. Sarkisian says he does not plan on changing much of the Tide’s offensive structure. This means that Harris is the solidified ground-and-pound runner. Brian Robertson Jr. might finally be the high-value flex back was showed in the 2018 Spring Scrimmage game.

Despite Derrick Henry dominated as a pure runner, he did so with the offensive schemes having a run play on first and second down. The Tide’s offense under Tagovailoa was a pass first situation on most starting drives. This might not give Harris much of a chance to create an impact in the run game and might reduce his role if Robinson will be the flex back. Harris will need to show how much of a dominating runner he is as well as play the flex.

Main Photo Credit:

File Photo: SANTA CLARA, CA – JANUARY 07: Najee Harris #22 of the Alabama Crimson Tide dives for the end zone. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)