TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon has always been shy when it comes to doing media appearances.
After the SEC Championship Game his freshman year in 2012, the first time he was available to the media since coming to Alabama (the SEC mandates open locker rooms after the game), Yeldon declined interviews as reporters approached him.
He couldn’t hide, though, on media day at the BCS National Championship Game later in January, and offered up this explanation: "I don't really like talking," Yeldon said, according to Don Kausler Jr. of AL.com. "I'm not really a people person, but I've got to do what I have to do."
A year later, before the Sugar Bowl last season, then-senior wide receiver Kevin Norwood joked: “He just hates the fact that y’all ask really dumb questions.”
Still, on Friday, the first day of fall camp, Yeldon trotted out to meet the assembled media. He said he’s more comfortable now, two years into his Alabama career, entering his junior and likely last season in Tuscaloosa, doing interviews. But he still comes off as shy and unassuming, seldom offering up lengthy answers.
His quiet personality makes it easy for some to overlook him, with players like Derrick Henry and Amari Cooper making noise around him and a highly publicized quarterback battle in front of him. It’s also why Yeldon, the returning No. 1 back on one of the best teams in the country with a penchant for running the ball, could be one of the most underrated preseason Heisman candidates.
“T.J., to come in and see him from the first day that I got here, all I've seen is someone that works extremely hard,” offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. “Doesn't say very much, doesn't ever ask about how you're going to utilize me, what different plays we're going to do, just go and score. Trains extremely hard. Watched him in the offseason workouts and during the spring, and now that we're out there practicing, that guy goes as hard as anyone on our team and just wants to be great and just wants to learn.”
On the field, there’s no doubting Yeldon’s star power.
He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons at Alabama. His 2,343 career rushing yards put him 1,222 away from breaking Shaun Alexander’s career record of 3,565. As the featured back last season, he showed he was capable of carrying a heavy load, particularly against LSU, where he was leaned on to put the game away.
|T.J. Yeldon rushing statistics|
It’s off the field, though, where he doesn’t exactly seek the spotlight.
“He’s setting an example by his actions,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “When he goes out there, he’s working hard. He’s not a very loud guy. But you can have a down day or you can be very tired and he’ll come up and tap you on your butt and be like ‘Come on, man. I need you right here, I need you right here.’ And sometimes that’s the best way to be a leader. And he understands that.”
And that’s OK, according to head coach Nick Saban.
“That's his personality,” Saban said. “I think he's sort of a quiet guy that is a hard worker. He sets a really good example in terms of how he goes about his work every day, how he practices. I think the players have a tremendous amount of respect for the example that he sets, the work ethic that he has, the kind of competitor that he is, the toughness that he plays with.
“But [he's] not a guy that does a lot of talking. And that's OK. I think you want players to be comfortable in what's natural for their personality, because otherwise it would only look contrived. He leads in a way that is effective for him.”
As far as the Heisman is concerned, Yeldon is on most preseason watch lists. Oddschecker lists him as seventh favorite above Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson.
In recent years, the Heisman has become a much more quarterback-driven award. But if you subscribe to the best-player-on-the-best-team mentality that the trophy sometimes falls into, Yeldon should be right up there.
He likely won’t have as much of a featured role this season, with Henry and Kenyan Drake both talented backs with experience behind him. But the running game should be a bigger focus, at least early on, as the Crimson Tide break in a new quarterback.
Whether it’s his shy personality or the mix of other intriguing storylines around him, the steady, veteran Yeldon tends to fly under the radar.
He should be in the mix of the Heisman conversation and other individual awards at the end of the season.
Just don’t expect him to hear about it from him.
Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.