Alabama's tailbacks having underwhelming season

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) The season has taken a toll on Alabama's once deep, imposing backfield.

T.J. Yeldon is nursing an ankle injury leading up to Saturday's game with No. 1 Mississippi State and Kenyan Drake is likely out for the season.

The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide's running game already hasn't been forcefully overwhelming opponents quite as it has in recent years.

The result is the team that has been regularly delivering bruising runners to the NFL doesn't have anyone among the Southeastern Conference's top 10 rushers.

''I think they've worked hard,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''I think they've done a good job. I think they've been responsible to respond the right way to whatever we've asked them to do.

''Sometimes their production has not been what it needs to be, not solely on what they've done. We've got to block and finish blocks and do a better job up front and get in the right play so they have a chance to be more productive.''

It seemed an unlikely concern for a team that has former five-star recruits Yeldon and Derrick Henry in the backfield, along with Drake before he went down with a broken leg in the fifth game.

Wide receiver Amari Cooper has replaced the tailbacks as the offensive go-to guy, which helps explain why Alabama ranks seventh in the SEC in rushing.

But Alabama's per carry average has also dropped from 5.8 yards last season to 5.0.

Statistically, Yeldon is having his worst season after becoming the first Alabama back to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two years. He's averaging just 5.1 yards per carry, a full yard less than his career average coming into the season.

Yeldon hurt his right foot against Tennessee and his left ankle on a fumble late against LSU, and has been limited in practice at least early in the week.

He has run for 686 yards and five touchdowns. Henry has gained 554 with four touchdowns, and LSU held him to 24 yards on eight carries.

Drake was having a big season especially as a receiver in the first five games before going down with a broken leg.

Alabama seemed to have one of the deeper backfields in the SEC coming into the season, along with teams such as Arkansas and Georgia. Yeldon was a preseason All-SEC pick, Henry starred in the Sugar Bowl after setting the national prep record for career yards rushing.

Redshirt freshman Tyren Jones was suspended before the LSU game, adding to the depth issues.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said the cupboard in `Bama's backfield is hardly bare.

''They have more and more and more coming out of there,'' Mullen said. ''They still have a couple more five-stars. I don't think the well is going to run dry any time soon.''

The Tide runners face a big challenge Saturday. The Bulldogs defense has been stingy against the run, but is last in the SEC in pass defense.

Alabama's backs haven't produced huge numbers, but quarterback Blake Sims still feels as if the Tide has one of the league's top backfields.

''Most definitely,'' Sims said. ''We just, probably, haven't showed them a lot, but T.J.'s working very hard and he's going to come back this game very strong.''

Tide offensive tackle Austin Shepherd doesn't sugarcoat the importance of having a healthy Yeldon against Mississippi State.

''I think it's huge,'' Shepherd said. ''We're not thin, thin at running back, but I consider him one of our best players and a leader on the offense. I think it's huge to have him.''

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AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed to this report.

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