Alabama's T.J. Yeldon growing into role in the spotlight
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He had never done this before at Alabama, not since he arrived on campus and enrolled in classes in January 2012. Back then, T.J. Yeldon was shielded from the media by Nick Saban's policy of not allowing freshmen to speak to reporters. Yet there was Yeldon, strolling through the Crimson Tide football offices -- he had the easy, confident gait of a mountain lion -- and taking a seat in a small, windowless conference room. This was the first one-on-one interview of his college career, but he would've rather been somewhere, anywhere else.
"I'm just a pretty quiet guy and I've never been a big fan of talking to the media," Yeldon, a sophomore running back, said softly one afternoon in late July. "I like to keep to myself, keep a low profile and then just do my thing on the field."
Still, Yeldon understands he's going to have to get used to speaking into microphones and standing in the klieg lights. Entering his second season in Tuscaloosa, he's a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender on a team attempting to win its fourth national title in five years. Not only that, he's on several preseason All-America teams and, according to one SEC coach, has as much pure talent as a young Adrian Peterson. "T.J. Yeldon is the best back in the country, hands down," said the coach recently. "He's got speed -- I've never seen him get caught from behind -- and he can juke and he's got power. You just don't see backs like this very often."
Playing behind Eddie Lacy last year, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Yeldon set an Alabama freshman record by rushing for 1,108 yards, and he tied Mark Ingram's freshman mark by scoring 12 touchdowns. More school records could fall this autumn -- Trent Richardson's single-season record of 1,679 rushing yards could be in jeopardy if Yeldon can stay healthy -- as Yeldon will take over as the Tide's feature back. Alabama's last three starting tailbacks have gone on to become first- or second-round NFL draft picks. (Ingram was picked No. 21 overall by the Saints in 2010, Richardson went No. 4 overall to the Browns in 2012 and Lacy was selected No. 61 overall by the Packers in April.) Yeldon looks like he'll eventually be the next to the follow in that line.
"We all have very high expectations of T.J. this season," said senior quarterback AJ McCarron. "He's a unique runner in that he has tremendous combination of speed and power. He's just so special. I've been following him since he was in high school and was hoping he'd come to Alabama."
He almost didn't. Before his senior season at Daphne (Ala.) High, Yeldon committed to rival Auburn. In fact, as he rushed for 2,193 yards on 232 carries -- he averaged an eye-popping 9.5 yards carry -- he affirmed his commitment to the Tigers on several separate occasions.
But in December 2012, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left the Plains to become the head coach at Arkansas State. A few weeks later, Yeldon, a five-star recruit and second-team USA Today All-American, switched his pledge to Alabama. The chance to play under Saban and the possibility of winning multiple national championships and a Heisman ultimately swayed the young back.
Yeldon's change of heart didn't sit well with many Auburn fans. He eventually had to take down his Facebook page because of the abusive, irate feedback he received. The fact that Alabama's Mr. Football -- Yeldon was the first running back to win the award since Carnell "Cadillac" Williams in 2000 -- flipped so late in the recruiting cycle only intensified Auburn fans' distaste for Saban, who has routinely won in-state recruiting battles against two different Tigers staffs. "It was a hard decision, but Alabama just felt like the right choice for me because right now, there's no better place to be if you're a running back," Yeldon said. "And it's definitely worked out for me."
It didn't take long for Yeldon to make an impression on his teammates. Though he spent most of his first spring playing with the third- and fourth-string units, he was named MVP of the spring game after he racked up 179 all-purpose yards (88 rushing, 91 receiving). On a particularly spectacular play, he caught a short pass, broke several tackles and sprinted 50 yards into the end zone. After the game, a few senior players looked like they'd just found out about a juicy secret. "I honestly didn't know that much about him until today," said center Barrett Jones of Yeldon. "I can't wait to see what else he can do."
Alabama faced Michigan in its 2012 season opener at Cowboys Stadium. As Yeldon walked onto the field, he marveled at the size of the Wolverines' defenders. "I just thought, "Man, they are big," Yeldon recalled. "That surprised me. But then I got my first carry and everything just felt natural. The game wasn't too fast and I just got into the flow." By the time the final whistle blew on Alabama's 41-14 victory, Yeldon had become the first true freshman in school history to rush for at least 100 yards in his debut game (he gained 111 yards on 11 carries and scored one touchdown).
"We had total trust, faith and confidence in T.J.," said Saban afterward.
Echoed Jones: "I don't think it's a secret that he might be the next one, kind of in line to take over that title of our great running back."
Yeldon leaned on former Alabama backs during the 2012 campaign. After he fumbled the ball deep in scoring territory against Texas A&M, a costly miscue in an eventual 29-24 loss, Richardson approached him in the locker room. Richardson had watched the game from the sideline and implored Yeldon to move on from his mistake. "Keep your head up," Richardson said. "This team is going to need you to be at your best going forward."
Yeldon also receives counsel from a family member with a rich football past: Pat White, a distant cousin who starred at West Virginia from 2005-08. Yeldon grew up watching White play quarterback at Daphne, and he decided he wanted to be a professional football player one day while sitting in the stands. "Just seeing the success that he had made me believe in myself," Yeldon said.
This summer, Yeldon has worked to improve his flexibility and keep his pad level lower after taking a handoff. He spends most of his free time in his dorm room at Bryant Hall playing video games with teammates, but he knows that more requests to speak will come this fall, especially if he continues to carve his name into the Alabama record book.
"I swear it shouldn't be that hard for T.J. to talk, because there are times out on the field when he doesn't stop talking," McCarron said with a laugh before practice on Aug. 4. "He's getting better every day and he's going to be a huge part of what we do this year. He's a fun guy to watch, and you get the feeling that he's just starting to tap into his potential."