Why Josh Jacobs is Alabama's most unlikely star
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It became apparent quickly that Alabama's Josh Jacobs was not going to be contained by expectations. On a field full of blue-chip prospects, this nobody, this three-star throw-in from Oklahoma whom everyone saw as a way of filling out Alabama's 2016 signing class, made a habit of standing out at practice.
He shouldn't have been getting many reps to begin with. Sophomores Bo Scarbrough, a former five-star athlete, and Damien Harris, a former four-star prospect and the No. 2-rated back in his class, were expected to gobble up the carries. And as far as for which freshman to watch? That was supposed to be B.J. Emmons, the top-rated back in that year's class -- not Jacobs, who was primarily a Wildcat quarterback during his senior year of high school.
But there Jacobs was, stealing reps and making a name for himself behind the scenes almost immediately. He could run with power and speed, which was nice, but he also was a hellacious blocker and skilled at catching the ball out of the backfield. Playing receiver, he would later say, came naturally to him. And he wasn't shy about contributing on special teams, either, whether that meant returning kicks or sprinting downfield to make a tackle.
As a freshman that season, Jacobs would earn a handful of carries in the season opener against USC and appear in every game thereafter. He'd win SEC Freshman of the Week after rushing for 100 yards against Kentucky, and three times he'd show up on the coaching staff's players of the week, twice on offense and once on special teams. All told, he'd finish fourth on the team in rushing with 567 yards and four touchdowns, and lead all running backs in receiving yards (156).
During the offseason, Emmons transferred, and Jacobs continued to improve. As a sophomore, there were those around the program who believed he had the potential to be the most productive back on the team -- not Harris or Scarbrough.
It was such that Alabama's top-ranked defense struggled to contain him in practice. Just as easily as he'd slip away and evade tackles, he'd lower his head and run right through them.
Former Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said the problems Jacobs presented on defense led to Hamilton and his teammates getting cussed out routinely by coaches during practice. Hamilton, who is now with the Washington Redskins, would refer to Jacobs as the "total package."
"I try to mix it up," Jacobs said. "I try to run people over some times and then juke them. I want to keep them on their toes."
And to think, no one knew who he was back at McLain High School in Tulsa. Justice Hill, an Oklahoma State commitment from the more established Booker T. Washington High on the other side of town, overshadowed him.
Jacobs' coach, Jarvis Payne, said the local newspaper thought he was padding his star's stats and that they had to come out to see for themselves. As only Missouri Southern and some other non-FBS schools had offered him scholarships, Jacobs and Payne put together a highlight tape and posted it on social media in an attempt to drum up interest.
Nick Saban didn't see Jacobs' highlights until after Alabama's win over Clemson in the CFP National Championship Game that January, when most of his staff at Alabama had already moved on to next year's signing class. But the six-time championship-winning coach saw speed and hands and quickness on that tape. Saban's first instinct, he would later admit, was that something had to be wrong with him, though. Maybe, he guessed, Jacobs was too small, and that's what had scared off other colleges.
Then-running backs coach Burton Burns would visit McLain High and report back that smallness was no such issue. His grades were good, too. He'd passed his ACT on the first try, Payne added. Burns watched him play basketball that evening -- and throw down a thunderous dunk that left onlookers slack-jawed -- and told Saban, "This is a pretty good-looking guy."
"We kept searching and searching and searching and never really ever found anything" in the way of flaws, Saban said.
"Everyone was trying to find something wrong because nothing really good comes from this area of town," Payne said. "But he's just that diamond in the rough."
After practice, Burns and Jacobs spoke for an hour. The first thing Jacobs noticed, he said, was Burns' championship rings. Alabama would soon offer him a scholarship, as would nearby Oklahoma, at last. The Friday before signing day, Jacobs took a last-minute official visit to Missouri, followed by a visit to Alabama the next day.
Picking the Crimson Tide was a dream come true for Jacobs. But it was also about proving a point. He wanted to show everyone, including himself: I can play with anybody.
Jacobs admits to playing with a chip on his shoulder. Whatever his role is, he said, he wants to embrace it.
Sure, he's an "electrifying player," Harris said. He finds the end zone on 12 percent of his touches and averages 3.67 yards after contact. He has 666 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage and ranks second among Power 5 players with 30.6 yards per kick return (minimum 10 returns). But it's not any of those stats that Harris said impresses teammates most.
"He's playing unbelievable football right now," Harris said. "Yeah, he does things he gets a lot of credit for, like scoring touchdowns and making big returns in the return game, but he also does the dirty work that no one really sees. Someone who does all those things and not ask for more credit than what they're getting gets a lot of credit amongst the team."
There's seemingly nothing Jacobs can't or won't do. During the season opener against Louisville, he took a kick back 71 yards for a touchdown. Against Texas A&M, he threw not one but two key blocks to spring Henry Ruggs III for a touchdown. And against Auburn, he not only knocked one defender off his feet during one memorable run, he also caught a 33-yard touchdown pass over the middle of the field.
When Jacobs ran for 97 yards on 20 carries against Mississippi State, it prompted Saban to say that Jacobs "was a demon running it."
"The beginning of every game, I just want to hit somebody just for myself to get the butterflies out," Jacobs said.
That physical running style is going to test the linebackers of Oklahoma during the Capital One Orange Bowl on Dec. 29 in Miami. Against his home state school, it will be interesting to see if Jacobs comes out even more fired up than usual.
After all, it's one thing to get overlooked by far-off programs like Alabama. It's quite another when it's the Sooners and they're a two-hour drive away.
He has had three seasons to prove that he's more than the three-star prospect no one expected to succeed, and yet the chip on his shoulder is still there. It's as if the advice Payne gave him early on at Alabama is still ringing in his ears.
"Keep working," Payne would tell him. "They're going to have a new darling every year. They're going to recruit the best guy every year. So you always have to be ready to compete."
Said Payne: "He's all heart, man."
Jacobs is a rarity in today's game. He's good enough to start and rarely ever does. He means as much as anyone to Alabama's offense not named Tua Tagovailoa, and yet he never complains about his role.
There may not be a player in the College Football Playoff who exemplifies the role of an all-purpose back more than Jacobs. Last year, there were those who believed he was the best back on Alabama's roster. This year, an AFC scout who visited practice agreed, calling him the Tide's most complete back and a future high-round draft pick.
To say that Saban appreciates Jacobs' mentality would be an understatement.
"This guy is one of the finest people, hardest workers," Saban said on his radio show recently. "... Never complains about how many carries he got, how many passes he got, how many plays he played. When you say, 'You're in,' he's excited and big eyes to get in there. You just love to have guys like that on your team."
Against Georgia in the SEC championship game, Jacobs battled flu-like symptoms and couldn't eat the day of the game. Running on multiple IVs, he rushed for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns on eight carries and won the game's most valuable player award.
Payne called him "old-school" like that.
"I saw him put our team on his back, and he willed us in the playoff," Payne said. "I knew when he got his chance he'd make the best of it. That's what he's doing now."