Trent Richardson, a running back you remember as a two-time national champion at Alabama and the third pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, has been suspended by the Saskatchewan Roughriders as training camp begins. The fate of the Roughriders is not of much interest in these parts, but Richardson’s status as one of the biggest busts, like, ever, is.
It appears clear now that the problem for Richardson and the four NFL teams that employed him from 2012-16 is that he was drafted before everybody knew that all Alabama running backs will put up huge numbers, thanks mainly to an offensive line that has dominated college football like no other single unit in the sport.
Nick Saban took the Alabama job in 2007, and that was the last year Alabama’s running game did not utterly pulverize the opposition — the top two Alabama rushers that year averaged 5.0 and 4.2 yards per carry, respectively. Richardson’s career began two years later as a backup to Mark Ingram, and he got off to a great start, running for 751 yards with an average of 5.2 yards per carry.
As a backup again the next season, his YPC jumped to 6.3 even as his carries and total yardage dropped slightly. When he finally became the starter in 2011, Richardson averaged 5.0 YPC and totaled 1,679 yards.
That is an outstanding season by the standards of almost any college football program.
At Alabama, though, it’s just sort of OK.
In Richardson’s three years at Alabama, he led the team in rushing yards one time and in YPC one time. His 2011 average of 6.3 YPC jumps off the page until you realize there have been six other first- or second-string Alabama running backs under Saban who have averaged more than that over a single season.
So what I’m telling you is that playing running back for Nick Saban at Alabama is a bit like playing quarterback for Mike Leach, it’s just that nobody knew that yet in 2012.
This is mainly because of the Tide’s incredible offensive lines. During Richardson’s three seasons at Alabama, he played with seven offensive linemen and one tight end who went on to play for NFL teams. The story is more or less the same for every Alabama running back since.
And when Richardson got to the NFL, he suffered an extreme version of a fate not uncommon for prolific Alabama running backs. T.J. Yeldon, a second-round draft pick who ran for more than 3,300 yards at Alabama, has never rushed for more than 740 in an NFL season (he had 253 last year). Derrick Henry ran for 2,219 yards at Alabama in 2015, but has a total of 1,234 yards in two seasons with the Titans.
Eddie Lacy and Mark Ingram, who both shared carries with Richardson, have three Pro Bowls between them, so you can’t call an Alabama running back fool’s gold. But the ever-growing sample size on Alabama running backs should give NFL teams some measure of pause — and a reason to take a second or third look at an Alabama lineman.
Richardson should have never been drafted as high as he was, and I doubt he would be today.