By: Garrett Franks
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes. Whether it be a setback in recovery or simply bad luck, the question isn’t whether adversity will strike, but how you respond to it.
Jase McClellan is no stranger to that feeling of adversity. The scars across his knees tell the story of a brutal injury that put McClellan’s future in doubt.
McClellan’s Early Years
Going into the 2021-2022 season, McClellan was squarely second in the running back room behind future NFL Running Back Brian Robinson. After five games into the season, McClellan was playing well enough to warrant more playing time.
He was featured in many third and short packages that allowed him to show not only his brute strength, but also his elusiveness outside the box.
McClellan brought a dimension to the backfield that Robinson couldn’t, namely a passing threat.Through five games he was relied upon in the pass game heavily. Quarterbacks Bryce Young and McClellan connected ten times in the air for 97 yards. He also added three touchdown receptions.
“It’s something I bring to the table that coach has asked me to do,” McClellan said. “When I don’t have anything protection wise, I can get out into the flat.”
“I can still play.”
Week five would change McClellan’s life forever.
In a matchup against Ole Miss, Jase planted on his right foot and heard a pop. After needing help to get back to the locker room, McClellan knew what that meant. An athlete’s worst nightmare – a torn ACL. His season was done after week five.
It was a devastating injury that only stoked the flames of an already red-hot McClellan. He began rehab and quickly got ahead of schedule. But recovering from an injury that significant wasn’t easy.
“It was a rough process just going into the training room and working on my strength and balance,” said McClellan. “But it was good coming back onto the field.”
It wasn’t until early fall camp that McClellan felt like his old self again. It took time to rebuild that trust with his previously injured leg.
“Once I got back in the pads, I just kept telling myself, I’m still the same, and I can still play,” McClellan said.
McClellan was patient for his return to the gridiron so as not to rush back too early and reinjure himself.
More adversity struck as Alabama added the top transfer portal, running back Jahmyr Gibbs from Georgia Tech. A position that McClellan, though he had locked up, looked much more daunting to break through.
In his two seasons at Georgia Tech, Gibbs put up impressive stats not only on the ground but also as a pass catcher.
In the shortend COVID-19 season, Gibbs broke out as a top talent, rushing for 460 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught 24 receptions for three touchdowns in ten games. With all the craziness that the COVID-19 pandemic brought, Gibbs was one of the few true freshmen to make his name well known on the national stage.
Gibbs built on a successful freshman campaign, amassing over 1,000 all-purpose yards and racking up six total touchdowns. Even with all the on-field success, Georgia Tech was a combined 6-16 through Gibbs’ first two seasons.
With a coaching change coming in the near future, Gibbs made the tough choice to enter his name into the transfer portal. Gibbs ended up choosing the Tide over Ohio State and Florida.
With Gibbs’ pedigree, he was bound to take a bite out of McClellan’s production. Not to mention Junior Roydell Williams, true freshmen Emmanuel Henderson, and Jamarion Miller. Like true competitors, McClellan didn’t want to back down, even if it was a crowded running back room.
“We all carry different attributes; that’s something that coaches talk to us about,” McClellan said. “Even though our size doesn’t say it for ourselves, we play like big backs.”
His introduction back into the rotation was gradual, as he only carried the rock a combined 18 times in the first three games. Even with the lack of opportunity, McClellan showed flashes of what he was still capable of. For example, his game against the Texas Longhorns.
In a game that took place in record Texas heat, everything went wrong for the Tide. Young struggled to get the ball out to playmakers, and the defense had their backs against the wall all game.
Late in the first quarter, McClellan’s number was called on a draw play that he took 81-yards to the house. outpacing Texas defenders on his way to the longest run of the season for the Tide. Alabama ended up winning 20-19, thanks in large part to McClellan’s contributions on the ground.
Even with the game breaking run against Texas, he only saw a slight bump in rushing attempts. He only received ten or more carries in two games, which came in wins against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
But McClellan’s number would soon be called upon in a big way.
November 12 was a very cold day in Oxford, Mississippi. In the press box of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, you could practically see your own breath. Many writers flocked to the tiny Keurig in the corner of the box to get their hands on a cup of coffee.
The cold did very little to damper the Ole Miss Rebel’s spirit. The Grove was packed with thousands of people from all walks of life eating, drinking, and watching football. It was one of those scenes where you look around and are reminded why you love college football so much.
Ole Miss came ready to upset the Tide. Even with the possibility that Alabama would annihilate the SEC Championship if Arkansas lost to LSU, a New Year’s Six bowl game berth was still on the line.
The Crimson Tide came out flat, quickly falling behind the Rebels 10-0 in the first half. Thanks to a pair of touchdowns from Young, the lead was slashed from double digits to only three points.
Even with only being down three points, Head Coach Nick Saban got some bad news about their bell cow, Jahmyr Gibbs. He was out for the rest of the game with a twisted ankle.
Like many times before, in the face of adversity with a hostile road environment and an offense struggling to move the ball, McClellan went to work. On a critical second-and-twelve, McClellan took the rock and sparked life into a deflated Crimson Tide sideline, carrying three Rebel defenders past the first down marker.
“He made some physical runs. The run he made on second-and-12, he basically did that on grit and determination,” said Saban. “Jase stepped up tonight and took advantage of it, no doubt.”
It was a scene that rejuvenated the quiet Alabama sideline. He didn’t stop there, Jase contributed over 84 yards on a career-high 19 carries. Two of the drives he led turned into Alabama touchdowns from Bryce Young.
The Crimson Tide ended up escaping Oxford with a 30-24 win. While many people are praising defensive end Byron Young and quarterback Bryce Young, it was McClellan who stepped up.
It was nearly Shakespearean how, over a year ago, against Ole Miss, McClellan suffered a season-ending injury. Now a year later, McClellan is largely the reason the Tide beat Ole Miss.
“We weren’t playing like ourselves out there, so we stepped up the physicality,” said McClellan. “When coaches need you to step up, you step up.”
McClellan is a man of few words; he tends to answer questions promptly with not much elaboration. But his body language told the story of a player proud of his performance. In front of the media, members crouched A new man stood in front of him.
What’s next for McClellan?
With Gibbs day-to-day due to his ankle injury, expect McClellan to get the bulk of the carries going forward. While the season is starting to wind down, it’ll be interesting to see what sticks in the back of Alabama fans’ minds about this season. Some might point to the lack of creativity with play calling, or that historic loss at Tennessee.
Sure, many of those viewpoints are fair when it comes to a largely disappointing season. But McClellan’s hard work, comeback, and performance against Ole Miss should be a chapter in the book of the 2022 football season.
Nest season will undoubtably be McClellan’s year to shine. With Gibbs more than likely being a day one pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, that leaves the door wide open for McClellan to be the de facto RB1. He’ll have to battle it out with Williams, Henderson, Miller, and two top-five true freshmen. With McClellan’s body of work, it would be hard to bet against him.