Yeldon key for No. 3 ‘Bama in Sugar Bowl, beyond

T.J. Yeldon is a man of many yards and few words, which so far

has suited third-ranked Alabama quite well.

After this Thursday night’s Sugar Bowl against No. 11 Oklahoma,

though, some of the program’s leaders, namely quarterback AJ

McCarron, will be leaving school. Then Yeldon, whether he wants to

or not, is expected to become the face of the Crimson Tide.

”We’ve got to try to get him to talk more, step up and be in a

little more of a leadership role,” McCarron said after the Tide’s

arrival in New Orleans this week. ”But he’s an unbelievable back.

He’s done a lot for us in two years.”

No one’s arguing with that last part.

He gained over 100 yards in his very first Alabama game as a

true freshman in 2012 and hasn’t looked back. This season, he

inherited the starting role that opened up when Eddie Lacy turned

pro, gaining 1,163 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns on 190 carries,

an average of 6.1 yards a carry.

But for Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, those

stats didn’t tell the whole story of the 6-foot-2, 218-pound

sophomore’s development.

”T.J. is a guy last year as he came in had instant success

early, and one of the things that people see when you talk about

the running back position is they see what the player does with the

ball in his hands,” Nussmeier said. ”But there’s so much more to

playing the position. I think T.J. has really grown in that aspect,

his attention to detail and protections, his understanding of the

overall scheme, the blocking schemes and how we’re doing things up

front to create holes for him. He’s really grown in that way this

season.”

Yeldon said he placed increased emphasis this season on

”learning the game and understanding more of my blocks.”

He figured if he did that, the yards, touchdowns and wins would

take care of themselves.

”I didn’t really set goals,” Yeldon said. ”I just came out

wanting to help my team and be a better player this year than I was

last year.”

If Yeldon plays in the Sugar Bowl the way he has most of this

season, he’ll likely be among the first mentioned in the discussion

of 2014 Heisman Trophy hopefuls.

His teammates expected that because of his performance on the

field. As for how much Yeldon will buy into any publicity campaigns

to keep Heisman voters focused on him, well, that remains to be

seen.

”I don’t think too much about that,” Yeldon said.

Offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio called Yeldon, ”camera

shy.”

”All he wants to do is just dominate. That’s all that’s on his

mind,” Kouandjio said. ”So I can see him as a Heisman

candidate.”

With the emergence this season of Kenyan Drake in the `Bama

backfield, Yeldon has taken on somewhat of a power back role. He

takes pride in the balance and strength he exhibits while bulling

his way through tacklers for tough yards. But he adds: ”I’ve got

some speed, too.”

Sooners defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue said he fully expects

Yeldon to be the best running back he’s faced this season.

”For a guy to be that strong, you don’t expect him to be able

to move side-to-side,” Ndulue said. ”You need more than one guy

to bring him down on most of the film we’ve watched and that’s what

jumps out to me.”

Kouandjio said he has often marveled Yeldon’s lateral

quickness.

”That’s the most remarkable thing,” Kouandjio said. ”He just

runs straight and a second later he’ll be over there and two guys

are on the floor where they thought he was going to be.”

Whether Alabama can get Yeldon to be a little less elusive off

the field remains to be seen, but McCarron said he intends to stay

in touch with the running back and offer whatever advice he

can.

”T.J. just kind of goes with the flow. He doesn’t really tell

anybody what to do or get on to them,” McCarron said. ”So I’ll

try to teach him as much as possible.”