Breaking the Mold: Freshman running back Derrick Henry brings size, talent to Alabama's offense
Derrick Henry is not your average running back.
The freshman turned heads when he stepped onto The University of Alabama’s campus as an early enrollee last January.
At 6 feet 3 inches, 238 pounds, Henry did not fit the size description of a typical running back. Running backs are usually shorter than 6 feet so they can hide behind offensive linemen and squeak through holes almost unnoticed.
Henry, on the other hand, meets linebackers eye-to-eye, sometimes even towering over them.
“He’s basically my height, so I was like, ‘God, dog,’ because I’m used to these short running backs,” former Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood said. “It was like, ‘Are you a receiver? Going to take my position?’”
Norwood, however, had nothing to worry about, as Henry’s journey at Alabama did not begin the way he had envisioned it after a successful high school career.
The Yulee, Fla., native came to Tuscaloosa as the 2012 Maxwell Football Club National High School Player of the Year. In his senior season at Yulee, Henry broke Ken Hall’s 51-year-old national high school rushing record with 12,124 career yards. Henry rushed for 4,261 yards as a senior.
A consensus five-star recruit, Henry was ranked as the country’s No. 1 athlete in the 2013 recruiting class and had Alabama fans drooling at the thought of him running behind the Crimson Tide’s mammoth offensive line.
It was easy to imagine Henry would step right into the running back rotation at Alabama behind T.J. Yeldon. However, Henry broke his leg during spring practice and was forced to sit out the A-Day game.
“I thought everything would be handed to me,” Henry said. “It’s a different level here than high school.”
In the early portion of last football season, Henry saw playing time on special teams and received a few carries when the Crimson Tide had a lead late in games.
But Henry still had some difficulty adjusting to the college game.
There was no better example of that than in Alabama’s first game against Virginia Tech. Henry entered the game at tailback, flanking quarterback AJ McCarron. He whiffed on picking up the blitz, which resulted in a sack on McCarron.
The fifth-year quarterback screamed his displeasure at Henry right on the field, a sobering moment for any five-star recruit.
“During the beginning of the season, he wasn’t really sure what he was doing,” Yeldon said.
Pat Dunlap, Henry’s running back coach from youth football all the way up to the high school level, said people have told Henry his entire life that he should change positions, that he is too big to be a tailback. Henry will not listen. He insists that he is, and always will be, a running back.
And the persistence is paying off.
Fans got their first full glimpse of Henry’s potential in Alabama’s 52-0 rout of Arkansas Oct. 19. Henry took three steps to his right, changed direction, busted an inside run outside of the left tackle and sprinted down the Crimson Tide’s sideline for a touchdown. He scampered 80 yards downfield without a single defender touching him.
“He’s got a dynamic that nobody else has … You don’t generally see a kid that big, that strong and that fast,” Dunlap said.
Henry rushed for 111 yards on six carries in the fourth quarter against the Razorbacks.
Against Chattanooga Nov. 23, Henry saw six carries again, this time rushing for 66 yards and a touchdown.
During the break for the bowl game, Alabama head coach Nick Saban decided to give Henry the ball behind Yeldon, jumping him ahead of Kenyan Drake in the depth chart.
Yeldon said that was not by accident.
“He’s had a great understanding, just picking up the scheme with what we’re doing,” Yeldon said.
Against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, Henry made most of his opportunity.
He carried the football eight times for 100 yards and one rushing touchdown. He also caught one pass for 61 yards and a score. In comparison, Yeldon rushed for 72 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries.
“Just let the boy carry the ball 10 times in a game and see what happens,” Dunlap said. “But he never got 10 carries. Even in the Sugar Bowl he didn’t get 10 carries. I have no doubt, heading into the spring, that if they give him the football, there will be no doubt who’s going to be the best running back at Alabama.”
Overall, Henry appeared in 12 games for Alabama in his freshman campaign, seeing time in the backfield in nine contests. He carried the ball 35 times for 382 yards and three touchdowns.
Henry averaged 10.9 yards per carry in the 2013 season.
“I think he’s going to become a great running back for this program,” Norwood said. “He’s kind of matured from where he started. He knows the offense better. He’s just a physical guy – big physical guy. He’s going to pound the ball inside. That’s what he does.”
Henry will look to split time with Yeldon in the spring and the upcoming season, while still holding off players like Drake, Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and Altee Tenpenny.
He said he must improve on blocking this offseason in order to take a step forward in the Crimson Tide’s offense, especially in pass protection.
“I can build a lot. I’m glad I’ve got a good feel in my running going into the offseason,” Henry said. “I just can’t get complacent. I’ve got to keep on working, become a better student of the game, watch more film.
“It’s time to get to work. The season doesn’t ever stop for us.”
For Henry, he said he has always wanted to be the best ever, and he will not stop until he has reached his goal.
“He said from day one that he was going to be the best running back ever, at any level,” Dunlap said. “He proved that he was the best running back in the history of high school football, and now his goal is to prove to everybody that he’s the best running back in college football.”