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New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) scores a touchdown against Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Chris Conte (23) during the second half an NFL football game in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017.

Alvin Kamara remembers the feeling.

An undeniable, undefinable something, growing in the pit of his stomach, leaving Kamara unsettled, unable to ignore the eerie sense of wanderlust pulling him away from a place he'd chosen only a year earlier.

Kamara felt like it was time to transfer from Alabama.

"I had this gut feeling," Kamara said. "This isn't where I'm going to play my college ball."

Family, coaches and friends weren't so sure, not even after an ill-fated freshman year full of difficulty both unavoidable and self-inflicted. Kamara's mother, Adama, told her son things would be all right in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

But the feeling in the pit of Kamara's stomach wouldn't go away.

"I’m the type of person, I trust my gut, and when I get a feeling about something, I make a move based off of that," Kamara said. "I went against everybody. I was like 'Man, I'm gone.'" 

Plans derailed

Only a year earlier, Kamara had been the final piece in a bumper crop of Alabama running backs, a recruiting haul that included Derrick Henry, Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones. 

The bruising Henry was widely considered the No. 1 running back in the class of 2012; Kamara was the No. 1 all-purpose back, Georgia's multitalented Mr. Football who led Norcross High to a state championship.

"The first time he touched the ball as a 10th-grader, I knew he was special," Norcross coach Keith Maloof said. "The things that he possessed at the high school level — he was able to run inside, get the hard yards and catch the ball out of the backfield. ... it led us to a 15-0 season."

Torn between Georgia and Alabama at the end, Kamara chose to join a Crimson Tide backfield that already had T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, plus the other three stars who signed with him. 

But Kamara forced his way into the mix for playing time right away, at least until he suffered a knee injury halfway through August. Nothing went right after that. Kamara was suspended in November, then suspended for the Sugar Bowl.

Instead of making an immediate impact, Kamara was forced to redshirt, and the feeling he needed to leave started to grow in his gut. 

"What happened here was he was doing extremely well for us and was probably going to play as a freshman, and he got his knee scoped and missed three or four weeks and really couldn’t catch up," Alabama coach Nick Saban told Fox Sports in 2015. "He was really frustrated with the fact that he wasn’t playing, and it was difficult for him at that time in his career."

A month after he decided to transfer, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license.

"I can say it, I was immature," Kamara said. "Young, living life, just living, that’s the best way I can put it."

The news of Kamara's decision to transfer was met with inevitable backlash from one of the most passionate fan bases in the SEC, plus from rival fans looking to rub Alabama's nose in the loss of a top recruit. 

Kamara remembers fans telling him he wasn't good enough to play at Alabama anyway, that he'd taken a look around his position room and decided he'd never crack the depth chart.

"I think that’s a misconception about me leaving Bama," Kamara said. "It was never one of those things where I was like looking to my left and right, like ‘Man, these guys are good; I’ve got to get out of here.’ Shoot, I knew what I was getting into."

As long as he chose a school outside of the Southeastern Conference, Kamara could have enrolled in another FBS program right away, spent a season practicing as a transfer and then hit the ground running in 2015. 

But he still had something to prove in his old conference.

"There was a lot of talk like, 'He can’t play in the SEC, he can’t play in the SEC,' and I knew I could," Kamara said. "It was like, OK, since you don’t think I can play in the SEC, I’m about to go to (junior college) real quick; I’ll be back in a year."

Cold lessons

Kamara received a frigid welcome to the Midwest.

Shortly after he enrolled at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, Kamara stepped outside to find snow up to his hip. Born and raised in Norcross, a suburb northeast of Atlanta, Kamara assumed the snow would force Hutchinson to cancel classes.

Then he looked around. Other students were still walking to class; cars kept driving, motoring by as if nothing was wrong. 

"I skipped class that day," Kamara said. "For me, it was not normal."

Kamara ended up at Hutchinson through his high school coaches. Norcross recruiting director Reggie Stanfield had a good relationship with Hutchinson coach Rian Rhoades; the school had already sent defensive tackle Ben Bradley and defensive end Demetrius Alston, Kamara's former teammates, to the school in Kansas. 

Rhoades did his homework on Kamara. The Hutchinson coach found out the running back's suspensions at Alabama had been the result of punctuality issues and a missed curfew; the arrest was minor.

More important, Kamara had no trouble taking responsibility for his actions.

"Alvin was pretty quick to own his immaturity and his mistakes at Bama," Rhoades said. "Kids are going to make mistakes, and when they’re willing to own them, to me that says a lot about them. We’re a lot more willing to give guys like that an opportunity than ones who want to try to push the blame off on somebody else."

Rhoades also realized quickly that Kamara's personality didn't fit the profile of a problem child. 

"He was just always real upbeat, real positive, real encouraging," Rhoades said. "And he's bright. He’s a good communicator, pretty worldly, but he’s a smart person."

Kamara's mother was born in Liberia and immigrated to the United States to escape the First Liberian Civil War, a war that claimed the lives of about 250,000 people over seven years.

He also has a 33-year-old sister, Garmai, and his close family relationships have given Kamara an expanded perspective of the world around him. 

"My mom, she’s got a different perspective on a lot of things just because of that foreign background," Kamara said. "Being over here, it’s just a lot of wisdom that you don’t hear from a typical American person. My mom, she’ll take stuff and spin it. … It’s hard to explain, but she’s got a lot of wisdom."

Unique abilities

Off-the-field issues behind him, Kamara punched his ticket back to the SEC before Hutchinson's football season even started.

After he left Alabama, schools around the country started swirling for a second chance at a premier talent, and Kamara developed a close relationship with Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie.

Once again, Kamara felt that familiar feeling in his gut, leading him to the next step before he'd even completed the one in front of him.

"One of my first conversations with him was just: He didn’t want to be recruited; he didn’t need a lot of sales pitches," Gillespie said. "He just wanted to be somewhere he was going to be comfortable for the second go-round."

Kamara committed a few weeks before Hutchinson's season started.

Then he went out and tore up the junior-college ranks. Kamara rushed for 1,269 yards, caught 18 passes for 219 yards and scored 21 touchdowns, flashing the potential that had nearly earned him playing time as a freshman at Alabama.

But the season he spent in Kansas was less about proving himself on the field than it was about maturing off of it. 

"When I got to Hutchinson, it slowed me down, and it made me realize to see the bigger picture, more than I already saw it," Kamara said.

Kamara's maturity mattered when he arrived at Tennessee.

Obviously talented, Kamara joined a Volunteers backfield that already had the bruising Jalen Hurd, a productive 240-pounder whom Tennessee used as its lead back.

Kamara's rookie season with the Saints has prompted several experts to wonder out loud why Tennessee didn't give him the ball more often, but Gillespie is adamant that the Volunteers were taking advantage of the two backs' skill sets.

"When you play in the SEC, you’re going to have a position room full of guys that you’ve got to get touches and carries to," Gillespie said. "We were in a situation where there was another good back here who played and served a role and a purpose, and we fit (Kamara) into packages."

Kamara's skill set has always made him the ultimate complementary back. In high school at Norcross, Kamara rushed for 2,264 yards as a senior, but Maloof said the skill that set him apart was his ability to create mismatches against linebackers in the passing game. At Hutchinson, Rhoades found himself designing plays just to highlight Kamara's versatility.

Kamara's intelligence also allows him to pick up offenses quickly. A coach can keep expanding his responsibilities on a weekly basis because Kamara soaks up information like a sponge.

With Hurd firmly entrenched as the bell cow at Tennessee, Gillespie and the rest of Tennessee's offensive staff used Kamara as a matchup weapon, building an ever-expanding package to take advantage of his ability in the passing game.

In two seasons in Knoxville, Kamara piled up 2,277 all-purpose yards despite sharing time with Hurd for most of his career.

"The option routes and things he’s doing with the Saints, those are things we did with him his junior year," Gillespie said. "Motion him in from empty ... the packages grew every week with him, because he’s that kind of player."


Another crowded backfield awaited Kamara after the NFL draft. 

Saints coach Sean Payton fell in love with the versatile running back at Tennessee's pro day. After a breakout NFL scouting combine prompted some experts to predict Kamara might go in the first round, he'd planned to let his performance in Indianapolis stand.

At least until Payton asked him to go get some cleats. Payton wanted to see Kamara run a few routes specific to the Saints offense, and a month after that impromptu workout, New Orleans gave up a seventh-round pick and a second-round 2018 pick to take Kamara high in the third round.

The Saints already had Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson, but Kamara's multifaceted skill set gave them a chance to fill a Joker role that had been vacant since Darren Sproles left New Orleans.

At the time, New Orleans wasn't sure about Kamara's ability to run between the tackles, namely because of how he was used at Tennessee.

New Orleans quickly found out the 215-pound Kamara possesses incredible balance and strength to go along with his ability in the passing game. Four games into the season, the Saints traded Peterson to Arizona in order to get Kamara more involved in the running game.

The results have been spectacular. Working in tandem with Ingram, Kamara is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has 311 rushing yards, plus 37 catches for 341 yards.

"I think it’s a lot of credit to the system. As an organization, as a coach, you get players and you find the best ways to use their skills," Kamara said. "Sometimes you don’t do it right, sometimes you do. I’m just grateful I’m in a position where my skills are being used."

Who knows what might have happened if Kamara had stayed at Alabama? 

Perhaps he would've gotten back on track, bumping a player like Drake out of his role as the complement to Henry. Maybe he'd still be in Tuscaloosa, tearing through defenses as a fifth-year senior.

As one of the NFL's most dynamic rookies and a key cog in a surprising Saints team on a six-game winning streak, Kamara doesn't have to wonder if leaving Alabama was the right move.

"I feel like it's the best decision I could have made," Kamara said. "Just the way everything's played out."

Sometimes it's best to go with your gut.

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.