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Was Alex Collins overworked in college?

Alex Collins runs away from the K-State defense
Alex Collins runs away from the K-State defense
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In years past several observers have thrown around the idea that one of the reasons behind the lack of success by Alabama running backs upon reaching the NFL is that they are worn down from years of heavy use at Alabama.  As recently as last month Colin Cowherd was pushing this theory again, and the idea has been thrown around enough and for long enough that last month Nick Saban finally weighed in.  Of course Saban doesn’t feel he’s overworking his backs, but what coach does?

In order to see whether Alabama backs are getting more work than other running backs in college football, I took a look at a handful of Alabama running backs and their workload while in school.  The carries, receptions and total touches for recent Alabama running backs are as follows:

Running Back Carries Receptions Total Touches
Trent Richardson 540 68 608
Eddie Lacy 355 35 390
Mark Ingram 572 60 632
T.J. Yeldon 576 46 622
Derrick Henry 602 17 619
Kenyan Drake 233 46 279

The next step was to see how this compared to other running backs in college football, so I looked at the college numbers for every running back selected in the 2016 NFL draft

Running Back Carries Receptions Total Touches
Ezekiel Elliott 592 58 650
Derrick Henry 602 17 619
Kenyan Drake 233 46 279
C.J. Prosise 167 62 229
Tyler Ervin 528 87 615
Kenneth Dixon 802 87 889
Devontae Booker 560 80 640
DeAndre Washington 605 124 729
Paul Perkins 621 80 701
Jordan Howard 647 24 671
Wendell Smallwood 425 68 493
Jonathan Williams 406 26 432
Alex Collins 665 27 692
Keenan Reynolds 977 1 978
Kelvin Taylor 486 24 510
Darius Jackson 321 44 365
Dwayne Washington 226 41 267
Daniel Lasco 348 48 396
Keith Marshall 253 24 277
Zac Brooks 116 17 133

These numbers show that Alabama running backs are not getting significantly more touches during their careers than feature backs at other college football programs.  In fact, there were eight running backs taken in the 2016 draft who had more touches during their careers than any of the Alabama running backs that are alleged to have potentially been damaged goods by the time they made it to the NFL, including Seahawks draft pick Alex Collins.

If NFL front office personnel truly believe that Alabama running backs are overworked during their time in college, it seems doubtful that they would then turn around and spend draft capital on players who have been subject to a greater number of touches during their college careers.  Just to look a tiny bit deeper, I wanted to see how much more abuse some of the backs had allegedly taken compared to top draft picks, so I ran the numbers for 2015 first round running backs Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon.  Turns out they weren’t that far off, as Gurley had 510 rushes and 65 receptions, for 575 total touches, while Gordon had 631 rushes with 22 receptions for 653 total touches.

What this all means is uncertain, but it seems unlikely that the reason for the failings of Alabama running backs has to do with their workload in college, and more likely has to do with the fact that Alabama has had 9 offensive linemen drafted in the past 7 years, including four first round picks.  That means that it’s likely that at least a good portion of the success of Alabama running backs in college has to do with the team’s offensive line opening up large holes, and the team’s running backs simply needing to hit those holes.  In contrast, once these backs make it to the pros, the defensive fronts they are facing are not allowing opposing offensive lines to open up such gaping holes, and backs with limited vision like Trent Richardson are finding the going much rougher.

What this means for Alex Collins, who recorded more carries and total touches in college than any recent Bama running back is likely that the Hawks have nothing to worry about in terms of his college workload.  Marshawn Lynch had 687 carries and another 94 receptions against more physical pro competition in less than four seasons with the Bills prior to being acquired by the Seahawks in 2010, and he held up pretty well for the next several years.  Likewise, Frank Gore had more carries (699) and total touches (828) in his first three seasons in the NFL than Alex Collins did during his college career, and Gore proceeded to reel off more than 1000 yards in six of the next seven seasons, only missing that mark during his injury shortened 2010 season.  Thus, I find it highly unlikely that the 692 total touches Collins racked up against college competition a reason to be concerned about the depth of the tread left on his wheels.

Thus, the conclusion that I am drawing from looking at these numbers is that Alabama running backs are no more beat up than the competition, and I’m not going to put much stock behind this idea the next time it pops up.