<
>

Nuance drives T.J. Yeldon to greatness, but leads to underestimation

10/23/2014
Play0:45
Yeldon Dives In For Bama TD

T.J. Yeldon ran 15 yards and dove for the pylon for Alabama's first touchdown of the year.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Don't look at his feet.

Study nothing but his eyes. How they calmly scan left to right. How they read blockers and study the defense.

T.J. Yeldon will fool you.

On this day, Texas A&M thinks it has Alabama's junior running back figured out. He's hemmed in on all sides. The Aggie defense watches Yeldon plodding behind the line, figuring sooner or later he'll get dragged down for a loss.

But Yeldon doesn't fall. He's waiting, watching. And as soon as a hole opens up, he makes one cut and he's gone. He finishes with 114 yards and two touchdowns.

He's Houdini. Tighten the straightjacket and marvel at how he slips free.

A quiet thinker, a deliberate runner, Yeldon defies the usual style of running backs in that he's neither particularly fast nor powerful. Instead, he's an amalgam of things, a veteran with poise few possess.

As former Alabama great Shaun Alexander is quick to point out, Yeldon isn't Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson or Eddie Lacy. He's not a runaway freight train like Derrick Henry or a bolt of lightning like Kenyan Drake. He is, as Alexander explains, "A confusing monster."

"You come off of Mark and Trent and Lacy, and then comes T.J.," Alexander said. "You say, 'Is he going to be big? Have a nice spin move? Break a few tackles? Or is he going to be a shift guy who makes you miss? Who is he going to be?' Well, he's that guy that can do all the things those Bama running backs can do, it just doesn't look the same, so it almost can make you miss how talented he is.

"He dominates the game and it's done so smooth, almost like it's effortless."

For nearly three years we've watched Yeldon run. During his first college game against Michigan he rushed for 111 yards. Thirteen times since then he's surpassed the century mark. He's become so reliable he's almost been forgotten.

If he averages 109.3 yards over the next six games, he'll break Alexander's school record of 3,565 career rushing yards.

If you can't appreciate Yeldon's brilliance with your own eyes, let us open them for you.

Vision

Asked what separates Yeldon from other backs, Jalston Fowler said it was simple.

"It's his vision," the fullback answered. "He sees the field really well."

Sometimes it doesn't look like there's a hole to be found.

"You pull up the film and see how he makes these cuts and things and you want to know, how did he see that?" said linebacker Denzel Devall. "I know if I was running the ball I'd never see the hole. I'd probably just bounce it outside or run it up on somebody."

Said Yeldon: "It's something you work on. I watch film a lot and look at the blocking schemes and make my cuts from there."

Mike Vickery saw that point of emphasis when he served as Yeldon's offensive coordinator at Daphne High in South Alabama.

"His football IQ is off the charts," he said. "The more he played, the more things slowed down.

"By the time he left, he not only knew everything he was supposed to do, he knew what the quarterback was supposed to do, he knew the blocking schemes up front, he knew the routes and what every receiver is supposed to do."

Patience

It's part of who he is.

Reserved and soft-spoken, Yeldon doesn't make a spectacle of himself.

"He's a very introverted guy," Vickery said. "But that does have something to do with being able to mentally see things and have the vision of things before they happen and all the things that play out in his mind."

Alexander figured that was the case. It explains how Yeldon can be so patient running the football.

"That's personality," he said. "Like the guy that says, 'I'm coming here to hit!' or 'I'm going to level somebody on every play!' Well, another guy might say, 'I'm going to sit here and see my way through.' I think before the game starts that person already has that.

"A lot of guys are so anxious to make the big play that they don't understand patience is a part of it. T.J. understands that the big plays have to come over time instead of trying to stress it to happen."

It drives some fans nuts the way Yeldon doesn't lurch toward the line of scrimmage, but often times that's ill-advised. Though he's not thought of as explosive, Yeldon has 25 career rushes for 20-plus yards, which ranks sixth among active running backs.

"He's good at hiding behind the guards and tackles, and then he'll pop up out the ground on you," Devall said.

Said defensive back Jarrick Williams: "You just see him explode through the hole and go, 'Whoa, where did he come from?' It's really shocking."

Total Package

If Yeldon is so appreciated by his peers, why is he so overlooked by others?

"I have to start all over like a freshman again because I had a bad year last year," Yeldon said heading into this season. Keep in mind that last season he became the first Alabama back ever to rush for 1,000 yards his first two seasons. "I'm just ready to prove I belong at the top."

If today's opinion makers don't see it, history is sure to put Yeldon in rarified air.

"It's hard for me to see [Yeldon] and not compare him to the whole group: the Bobby Humphreys, the Johnny Mussos," Alexander said. "Because he's one of us. He's one of the elite."

For now, Alexander hopes people appreciate Yeldon's worth.

If not at Alabama, then in the NFL.

He'll challenge the idea that the feature back is dead, Alexander said.

"He will allow people to think, 'Well, if you want to you can,'" the former NFL All-Pro and MVP said. "That's what's going to make him a great steal because he will open up the coaches' eyes wherever he goes to that, 'You know what? We can use this guy all day and in any situation.'"

He may not wow you with any one skill, but Yeldon is the complete package.

"It's special what he does," Alexander said. "He just gets it done."