ATLANTA – His Alabama teammates refer to Bo Scarbrough, with utmost veneration, as “an animal” and “a monster.” The roster lists him at 228 pounds, but “he’s more than that,” Crimson Tide offensive tackle Jonah Williams said. “That’s a big dude, with big old arms.” In the spring, Scarbrough ran a 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. He hardly slows down as tacklers bounce off him, his balance impeccable.
And, in yet another signifier of Alabama’s ridiculousness, he spent all season as the backup.
Scarbrough’s status may well change after his breakout performance in the College Football Playoff semifinal, a 24-7 victory over Washington on Saturday. Scarbrough, a sophomore, rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, plowing over defenders and inducing chants from Alabama fans of “Give it to Bo!” Whether they get their wish on Jan. 9, when Alabama faces Clemson in a rematch for the national title, may decide whether the Tide wins a second straight title.
“He’s got great size and speed,” Coach Nick Saban said. “He can run behind his pads. He’s got good vision. He’s a good receiver and he can block. So he can do all the things that any good running back can do. His productivity has certainly been a benefit to this team, especially the second half of the season.”
The Crimson Tide has broken tendency from recent seasons and relied on a varied rushing attack, leaning on sophomore starter Damien Harris and freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts while sprinkling in Scarbrough. But Scarbrough’s late-season surge may put him, at least for one game, in the company of former ‘Bama load carriers Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Derrick Henry.
It is difficult to nitpick a dominant victory in a national semifinal, but offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin faced a accusatory question in the aftermath: Did Alabama give Scarbrough the ball enough? Through three quarters, at which point Alabama led, 17-7, Scarbrough had carried on just 12 of 48 snaps despite gaining 7.9 yards per carry to that point.
Kiffin didn’t necessarily disagree with all the fans and Twitter play-callers calling for him to give the ball to Scarbrough with greater frequency. He explained Scarbrough’s low-carry total, at least before the fourth quarter, as a byproduct of Alabama’s prior running back hierarchy and pace.
“At the end of the game, when a guy has got those numbers, you always look back and say, ‘Give him the ball more,’” Kiffin said. “We just couldn’t get a rhythm really going sometimes. We had some drives where we did. Then when you’re going fast, you can’t sub. There’s times when we’re going, but he’s not in there, and we want to get him in. But the best thing that we do in this game is to go fast. We felt like going fast was the better plan.”
Both recent history and Saban’s comments after the semifinal suggest Scarbrough will receive more carries in Tampa. Saban and Kiffin are not reticent about leaning on one running back. Last year, the Heisman Trophy winner Henry ran 395 times, including single-game carry totals of 38, 46, 44, and, in the national title victory against Clemson, 36. A similar workload may await Scarbrough.
“You guys know me,” Saban said. “Whoever’s hot, that’s who’s going to get the ball. And he’s been hot lately, and he’s going to get the ball.”
Scarbrough came out of nowhere for casual college football fans, but not for Alabama die-hards or players. Recruiting services ranked Scarbrough as the best high school player in Florida in 2014. Alabama chose not to redshirt him last year despite the presence of Henry and NFL draft pick Kenyan Drake – a sign coaches believed Scarbrough would leave for the NFL after the minimum three seasons of eligibility, whether he saw the field or not.
Injuries addled Scarbrough from the moment he arrived. He missed the first four games of his career with a right knee injury, and for the next two years, nagging ailments either sidelined or hindered him. This season, Scarbrough appeared in 12 games and gained 6.6 yards per carry, but only received 9.1 carries per game.
“It’s just, trust in the process and believing in your teammates and believing in yourself that you can get the job done if the coach can trust you,” Scarbrough said.
“I’d like to make a comment about that,” Saban said, sitting next to Scarbrough on a dais. “Because Bo has always been a really hard worker, and he’s had some obstacles to overcome, mostly little injury-type things that have plagued him a little bit. But never once did he put his head down. Never once did he get frustrated or discouraged. Just kept working. Every time you call on him, he’s ready to roll.”
Alabama sensed a breakout coming. Against Tennessee, Scarbrough started and rampaged for an 85-yard touchdown. Against Auburn, he ran a then-career-high 17 times for 90 yards. After the Southeastern Conference championship game against Florida during which he scored twice and rushed for 91 yards, coaches named him Alabama’s offensive player of the week.
“I thought he was a monster,” linebacker Ryan Anderson said. “I saw him make those runs against us in scrimmage since he got here, so it wasn’t a surprise to me.”
“We see that potential every day in practice, just the way he works, day in and day out,” Harris said. “He earned this game. He put the work in, and he got the results.”
The Tide’s offense may need another giant performance from its giant running back. Aside from his bulldozing runs, Alabama mustered little against Washington. It authored four three-and-outs and gained 3.2 yards per play when Scarbrough didn’t touch the ball. Kiffin said he reined in Alabama’s attack in order to mitigate Washington’s turnover-happy defense, content to let Alabama’s defense suffocate the Huskies.
“I don’t think the score was what we wanted it to be,” Williams said. “We didn’t finish drives very well.”
Life will become no easier in Tampa. Alabama’s interior offensive line, the center and two guards, is the closest thing Alabama has to a weakness. It will be tested to the extreme against Clemson’s defensive line, which may be the only group quick enough, big enough and populous enough to rival Alabama’s.
There are signs that suggest Alabama’s offense will struggle against Clemson. Then again, Alabama is the kind of place where Bo Scarbrough can be a backup. The Tide will just have to remember to give him the ball.