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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Alabama's string of formidable tailback tandems continues unabated.
Now, it's sophomores T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake pounding at, or running away from, opposing defenses. The top-ranked Crimson Tide's Tailback 1 and 1A have been piling up yards and touchdowns at a clip that would make the Trent Richardson/Mark Ingram and Richardson/Eddie Lacy combos proud.
It's business as usual in the Alabama backfield. One goes in, one comes out, and the Tide keeps rolling.
"It's not really competing because coach sees us as two people that can come in at any given time," Drake said. "Whether he's in or I'm in, we're both excited for each other. He scores a touchdown, I score a touchdown. He gets a big run, I get a big run. Or any of our backs. We're just happy for each other because we're helping the team win regardless."
They've been powering the way lately for an offense whose biggest star is quarterback AJ McCarron and deepest position is wide receiver.
Yeldon has run for 333 yards and four touchdowns in the last three SEC games going into Saturday's visit from Tennessee. Drake's production has been similar with 309 yards and five touchdowns, and both have been effective catching passes too.
"They're similar in terms of stature, and they play with a high level of physicality," Tennesssee coach Butch Jones said Monday. "Both have great speed. I think the one thing you can say about their program — it's what we're building here at Tennessee — it's based on competition. It's a competitive environment every day you walk in there. That's what we're building here, kind of the next-guy-in mindset."
The next guy in has been Drake, who has shed a slow start and squashed any speculation about whether a member of the latest group of hotshot running back recruits could overtake him on the depth chart.
Drake had 53 yards through three games and was held out of the opener against Virginia Tech for unspecified reasons. Now, he has seven touchdown runs and is averaging 8.2 yards a carry, the highest among the SEC's Top 15 rushers.
Since those three games, Alabama's running game has climbed from last in the Southeastern Conference in rushing to fifth.
The Tide is pounding away at a clip of 271.5 yards per game and 7.2 yards a carry since those early struggles and ran for 352 yards against Arkansas.
"I think those two guys have played well," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "Both tailbacks complement each other in terms of their style. One guy's a little bit faster (Drake). The other guy's more of an inside, make you miss, hard to tackle."
"I think the change of pace that the two guys complement each other with is really something that's good for our team. I think it's good for both of them as well."
This is starting to look like Saban's typical Alabama backfield. The Tide's tailback duos during the three national championship seasons under Saban have averaged 2,423 yards and 27 touchdowns. The only "down" year in the past four seasons was 2010 when Ingram and Richardson combined for 1,575 yards and 19 touchdowns and the team went 10-3.
Those two were both first-round picks — Ingram won the 2009 Heisman Trophy and Richardson was a finalist in 2011 — while Lacy was a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers this year.
Lacy and Yeldon both topped 1,000 yards last season.
Yeldon and Drake have some ground to make up to match those numbers. Yeldon is sixth in the league with 686 yards while Drake's 402 ranks 13th. Both have run for seven touchdowns.
But their recent tear has still been impressive. Plus, Yeldon also has 11 catches for 104 yards and Drake eight for 101 yards.
"They are both great running backs and I have confidence in anybody we have really as a running back when they step in, they'll do the job needed," McCarron said. "Both of those guys have been playing great for us. The things that I'm happiest about is they do a really good job in protection and get out when they are supposed to and give me a check-down option, because a lot of teams know we have a lot of vertical threats, so they drop a lot of people back in the zone now.
"The check-down has been big for us. They've done an excellent job."
AP Sports Writer Steve Megaree in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
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