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Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara takes an unexpected path to NFL draft

Running back who left Alabama showed growth and maturity with Volunteers

The plan was clear for Alvin Kamara. After his standout prep career in Georgia, he would move on to the University of Alabama, become the next great Crimson Tide running back and a top NFL draft pick. Yep, Kamara had it all laid out.

“But sometimes, man, things don’t work out like you think,” Kamara said. “That’s when you’ve got to adjust.”

Kamara had a rough experience at Alabama. Suddenly, the path he envisioned to college and professional stardom no longer was clear. Kamara had to make a choice: Either grow up or give up. He chose the former.

With the three-day NFL draft beginning Thursday, Kamara is trending in the right direction. He followed a solid two-year run at Tennessee with a good enough performance at the NFL combine, which, reportedly included his impressive score on a test measuring aptitude for learning and problem-solving. Although Kamara is considered to be in the second tier of available runners, it wouldn’t be surprising if he were a high-round pick.

Kamara is eager to prove he’s ready for the NFL.

“Definitely had to mature a lot; the changes helped me,” Kamara said by phone this past week. “There was stuff that didn’t work out like I wanted it to, and I really didn’t know what would happen, I just knew I didn’t want to stop [playing football]. I still believed I could do it, reach my dreams, but I had a lot to prove.”

Especially after stumbling unexpectedly. Coming out of high school in Norcross, Georgia, Kamara had baskets full of scholarship offers after starring at Norcross High and signed to play for Alabama. The problem was, head coach Nick Saban’s squad was loaded at running back.

Kamara was in the same recruiting class with Derrick Henry. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, who were already on campus. It proved to be an incredibly tough group to crack. After undergoing knee surgery in the preseason, Kamara had no chance as a freshman. Then came the off-field issues.

Saban prohibited Kamara from practicing with the team for one game because of “behavior reasons.” He was suspended for Alabama’s bowl game. Around that time, he also was arrested for driving with a suspended license. Alabama released Kamara from his scholarship.

“It was just one of those things where you know” it was time for a change, Kamara said. He transferred to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. Kamara did a lot of thinking. He hadn’t handled his time at Alabama as well as he could have, Kamara realized, and he couldn’t waste another opportunity.

“I knew I had to get it right,” he said. “I knew I had to show everybody that I could do the things they thought I could.”

Refocused, Kamara shined in his one season for Hutchinson and signed with Tennessee. He was highly productive for the Volunteers, averaging 6.96 yards per touch (rushing attempts and receptions) and scoring 23 touchdowns. And Kamara was as stable off the field as he was on it. The only question about Kamara’s two years at Tennessee is this: Why didn’t Volunteers coaches use him more?

A versatile runner who averages almost seven yards per touch, it would seem, should have touched the ball a whole lot more. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s do-it-all runner, had 372 touches the past two seasons. Asked about his role in Tennessee’s offense, Kamara displayed maturity.

“Just always thankful for the opportunities I got,” he said. “I want to get the ball as much as I can. Carries, catches … however they want to use me. But it’s not just about me. I was part of a team. Coaches do what’s best for the team. That’s the way it should be.”

Good answer. Recently, Kamara has had many. Reportedly, Kamara scored the highest among running backs at the combine on the Wonderlic Test, posting a 24 on the 50-question exam. Of course, a high score doesn’t ensure success in the NFL. If you’re an NFL prospect, however, you’d rather do well on any test that teams put in front of you. Kamara also has other good stuff going for him.

Measured at 5-foot-10, 214 pounds during the combine, Kamara displayed a knack for making big plays in college, although his 4.56 time in the 40-yard dash wasn’t great. Kamara is a good receiver out of the backfield, according to NFL player personnel executives, and could be an every-down back in the league.

On many of the draft experts’ lists, Kamara is behind McCaffrey, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook of Florida State. But on the field, lists don’t matter.

“Any team that gets me is getting a guy who can give them what they need,” Kamara said. “They’re getting a guy who doesn’t have to come off the field. Running or passing [plays], it don’t matter. And they’re getting someone who has matured. Matured a whole lot.”

Kamara still may wind up where he wanted to be all along. And he’d be better off for it.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.