NEW ORLEANS (AP) — 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."
Page 2 of 2 - 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."