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Nearing 100 percent, Kenyan Drake is a difference-maker at Alabama

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Kenyan Drake couldn't help but feel frustrated during Alabama's spring game. Burdened with a black no-contact jersey, he couldn't run the way he'd like. He showed off some of his speed and quickness, but that didn't mean much when he was made to play what amounted to a game of two-hand touch.

Breaking through the line on one play, he had a full head of steam and daylight in front of him. But the whistle blew and everyone stopped. A defender apparently tapped his shoulder. Instead of a long touchdown run, Drake was limited to a few yards and a not-so-subtle reminder he's not yet 100 percent after suffering a season-ending leg injury against Ole Miss in early October.

If it were a regular-season game, he may have been able to play without limitations. But coach Nick Saban made what he described as a "business decision." Risking injury during a glorified scrimmage wasn't worth it. Saban said, "I don't think he had anything to prove out there." But of course Drake was frustrated. Linebacker Reggie Ragland said he was "crying" because he couldn't do everything he wanted.

"If he's a competitor you would expect him to get frustrated because he wants to compete like everybody else," Saban said. "I think with a cool head and under normal circumstances if any of us sat down and had a conversation with him, he's probably pleased with the spring that he had and feels great about the fact that he got a lot of work in and he didn't get exposed a lot. He's going to now have a great opportunity for the next three or four months to continue to build on that and he didn't put himself in any great risk of injury."

In fact, just getting through spring without incident would have been enough to make Alabama's coaching staff happy. That Drake recently ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, according to Saban, is simply icing on the cake. With his speed and Derrick Henry's bruising, between-the-tackles running style, Alabama has as talented and dynamic a pair of tailbacks as any in the SEC.

But it's Drake's versatility that really makes the combination interesting. Not only is he a speedy back, he's also shown he can play some wide receiver. Before he was injured last season, he motioned from out of the backfield to the slot, ran by a lumbering linebacker and caught an 87-yard touchdown reception during the opening offensive series against Florida. When healthy, he's a veritable Swiss Army Knife for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

Coming back from his injury, there are high hopes for the senior, bordering on outrageous expectations.

Earlier in the spring, wide receiver Chris Black compared Drake to NFL running back Reggie Bush.

"He's versatile," he explained. "Coach Kiffin, I can tell you, loves him."

After A-Day, Ragland used the same comparison to the former USC standout.

"I think Kenyan is going to be like a Reggie Bush. He's going to be spreading it out, catching passes, coming out of the backfield, doing his thing," Ragland said. "I think he might win the Heisman this year."

It's hard to win the Heisman Trophy when you're not technically a starter, but given Drake's ability to impact the game from anywhere on the field, it's not out of the realm of possibility. He was averaging 10 yards per play and a touchdown every 4.5 touches before he collapsed on the field in Oxford, Mississippi.

With Amari Cooper no longer in the fold and an inexperienced group of receivers, don't be surprised if Kiffin leans heavily on Drake to make plays in the passing game. According to Henry, he expects there to be times where both he and Drake are on the field together.

He'll have to stay healthy, of course. But that's why Alabama was so cautious during the spring game.

The competitor in Drake wanted to run free. He wanted to break tackles and show how good he can be in 2015.

But for his future and that of his team's, it was best he stay under wraps. And besides, it may make his comeback this fall all the more dramatic.