Below the Radar: Alabama Utility Back Jalston Fowler

Photo by Football Schedule.
Photo by Football Schedule.

Alabama FB/HB Jalston Folwer reminds me of Atlanta Falcons’ underrated ‘tweener Jason Snelling, only Fowler is a better ball carrier. 

The eye in the sky doesn’t lie. It’s a pithy football cliché. But the eyes in our heads can fool us.

It happens to everyone while watching a football game and play-by-play commentary can reinforce inaccurate depictions of what’s happening on the field. If you’re a casual viewer this is nitpicking criticism. If you’re focusing on a player it’s important to forget what you saw on the couch with your buds and ignore what you heard during the game.

A good example is what I heard from announcer Brent Musberger’s during Alabama’s 2012 opener against Michigan when he described Crimson Tide fullback/halfback (and H-back) ‘tweener Jalston Fowler “hammering away” at the Wolverine front. I thought I saw the same thing from the 250-lb. Fowler. However, when I studied his performance last month, what I saw on repeat views was a big man making defenders miss.

If what you see below didn’t fool you upon first viewing, good for you. You have truthful eyes today. Congratulations, you’re a football analysis god. Now go away.

Whether Fowler returns to Alabama this year or leaves for the NFL (and I believe he’s staying), he is the type of prospect who heightens my interest as a talent evaluator because he has been a supporting actor on a stage that has included leading men Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, and T.J. Yeldon. If Folwer makes an NFL roster and develops into a contributor along the lines of Snelling, Mike Tolbert, or ascends to a lead role, it wouldn’t be the first time a runner in a collegiate supporting role earns a greater opportunity as a ball carrier as a pro.

William Andrews was a fullback for Joe Cribbs. Terrell Davis was backing up Garrison Hearst. Priest Holmes took a backseat to Ricky Williams. And Willie Parker knew every grain and knot of the pine where he sat at UNC.

These examples and others are often personnel decisions that factor scheme fit in addition to talent. In the case of Fowler, a four-star prospect as a running back at the prep level, it was an embarrassment of riches in Tuscaloosa.

Here’s an introduction to those unfamiliar with Fowler as a ball carrier.

Footwork in the Hole

Fowler is the single back on 2nd and 10 with 5:37 in the first quarter from a 21 personnel weak side twin, strong side I-formation set at the 33 of Alabama. Michigan is in a 4-3 with the free safety in the box at linebacker depth over right defensive end. This is a zone run with the right guard collapsing the defensive tackle inside  and the center working to the middle linebacker.

Fowler works behind the right guard to reach the line of scrimmage, entering the hole with low pad level as the outside linebacker from the left side pursues inside. At 6’1″, Fowler is a tall runner but his pad level is excellent and I’m impressed with his ability to change direction running from this crouched position. He dips outside that linebacker’s reach two yards down field and turns up the left hash for another eight.

Then Fowler bends inside the cornerback coming from the left hash at the first down marker maintaining that strong pad level with the ball high and tight under his right arm. The Alabama runner finishes the play dropping his pads into the safety 13 yards down field gains another four yards for a total of 17.

This finish warrants Musberger’s characterization, but it’s Fowler’s maneuvering around these blocks untouched for three-quarters of this carry that is most noteworthy.

Feature Back Agility

This 2nd-and-10 gain of four with 2:11 in the first quarter isn’t a display of Lesean McCoy’s skill at cutting against the grain, but it reveals that Fowler has the agility to execute NFL-caliber, press-and-cuts down hill at the line of scrimmage. This is a 12 personnel weak side twin set versus a 4-3 with the Michigan strong safety outside the wing back on the unbalanced strong side. Alabama runs a zone blocking play to the strong side.

Fowler presses the run towards the end and then cuts the play downhill. He cuts inside his left tackle and then bends the run under his left guard. I have the 49ers-Panthers Divisional Playoff game on as I’m writing this and I just watched Frank Gore execute the same press and cut – Fowler’s was no different.

Alabama’s big back bursts through the line of scrimmage for a gain of four before the defensive back hits Fowler in the legs. This is when 250 lbs. of north-south burst and pad level does it’s job: Fowler keeps his legs moving and earns another four on the play, carrying two more defenders on his back.

This 1st-and-10 wind back play from a 12-personnel weak side twin set at the 43 of Alabama is good display of quick, economical feet that transitions well to the NFL.

The left guard and center do a good job with their double team to the middle linebacker. Combined with the tight end’s effort on the edge, there’s a huge lane to the left side of the line of scrimmage. However the outside linebacker manages to shoot this gap unblocked straight for Fowler.

The runner executes a nifty cut inside the attempt, reaches the line of scrimmage, and runs through the arms of the next defender. Fowler maintains his balance for another five yards down field and then out runs a wrap attempt eight yards past the line of scrimmage, splits the safety and cornerback with strong pad level and falls forward for a gain of 12. The replay does an even better job of showing the footwork.

Mature Decision Maker

Fowler may have good feet, but he’s not a big back with a little back’s mindset like Lendale White or Marc Tyler. If a large crease doesn’t open, Fowler makes the most of what’s ahead.  This 12 wind back play from a 12 personnel weak side twin set with 9:58 in the game isn’t a big gain, but it’s a mature decision.

At the snap, the wing back works across the formation to the weak side end as Fowler takes the exchange. Fowler spots the right defensive end working across the face of the runner’s edge block to penetrate the middle of the line. Fowler dips to the left for three yards, gaining all three after contact at the line of scrimmage when there was no crease.

With Richardson and Lacy the marquee backs while Fowler was an underclassman and Yeldon and Derrick Henry as the present and future of the Alabama backfield, Fowler isn’t a name the public will know. But whether it’s this year or next, Fowler is a player I expect to make an NFL roster as a special teams contributor who will develop into a factor in a pro offense.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you pre-order before February 10, you get a 10 percent discount. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

You can begin placing orders for the 2015 RSP in January. 

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