Letting His Legs Do the Talking
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
There are two Derrick Henrys. There’s the unassuming Derrick, a young man of limited words who shuns the spotlight and a microphone. And then there’s the on-field Derrick who can’t help but be locomotive-loud once he starts trucking opposing defenders.
In his first opportunity to serve as the primary catalyst of the Alabama offense, Henry erupted into a record-setting superstar in 2015. Playing a rugged schedule in arguably college football’s toughest conference, the junior workhorse established a new single-season SEC rushing record with 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns on 395 carries. And for his unflagging efforts and weekly heroics, Henry has been named the 79th recipient of the Maxwell Award.
Henry is hardly a stranger to success … or the Maxwell Football Club. Just three years earlier, the then-precocious teenager was honored as the Club’s National High School Player of the Year following a prolific career at Yulee (Fla.) High School. By the time Henry was through as a Hornet, no high school back had rushed for more career yards—ever.
Naturally, expectations were high when Henry arrived in Tuscaloosa early in 2013 as one of the top-rated recruits of his class. And he had the right size at the right position to immediately become an every-down back. However, this is Bama, and at Bama there’s rarely a necessity to hurry a player into a feature role.
As a rookie, Henry whet the appetite of Tide fans by averaging almost 11 yards on 35 carries, while learning behind T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. As a sophomore, Henry carved out a bigger role, rushing for a team-high 990 yards and 11 scores on 172 touches. However, it was last season, his first in a full-time capacity, when No. 2 exploded into a bona fide wrecking ball between the tackles.
When evaluating athletes, the term ‘comps’ is often used to draw parallels between two players. It’s designed to create a visual comparison as opposed to one rooted in just words. What’s both curious and compelling about Henry is that he truly has no comps, a past or present running style doppelganger who can match his freakish amalgam of measurables. In this regard, it might be fair to say he’s incomparable. Eddie George or Eric Dickerson, possibly? Long way to go, sure, but the similarities are visible on tape.
During his time at the Capstone, Henry was his own distinct category of running back. At 6-3 and 242 pounds, he’s built like a college linebacker, a well-sized one at that. Yet, he’s not the plodder who comes off the bench in short-yardage or goal line situations. Hardly. Henry is explosive, with the build-up speed to motor through the first two lines of defense and into the secondary. And when a player of his size and strength is allowed to amass a head of steam, it’s like trying to topple a vending machine in the open field.
The bar was set high for Henry in 2015. Yeldon was now a Jacksonville Jaguar, which meant more touches in a run-heavy system that uses the backs to set up the passing game. And, from start to finish, Henry was up to the challenge in what would go down as his amateur finale.
Over the course of 15 games, Henry bruised, battered and wore down opposing defenses like a heavyweight champ. He scored a touchdown in every outing, rumbled for more than 200 yards on the ground versus four SEC teams and he was at his most dynamic when facing the nastiest opponents on the schedule. Henry averaged more yards against ranked opponents than unranked ones, and he really rolled in contests with the talent-rich defenses of Wisconsin, Ole Miss, Georgia, LSU, Florida and Clemson.
You’ve got to beat the best to be the best, and that ought to be the tagline for Henry’s breakthrough 2015 campaign.
Even more remarkable than Henry’s raw numbers was the circumstances in which he compiled them. True, Alabama always boasts a dynamite O-line and a proven system. But Henry was forced to carry an unusually heavy load this past fall. The passing game was steady but unspectacular, and the usual two-headed backfield in Tuscaloosa was derailed by injuries to backup RB Kenyan Drake.
Under Nick Saban, the one-two backfield punch is typically a foregone conclusion, the basis for an offensive philosophy—Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram, Ingram and Trent Richardson, Richardson and Eddie Lacy, Lacy and Yeldon. In 2015? Henry and, well, Henry. He was the definition of a workhorse, toting the ball more than anyone in the country, including 90 times in consecutive wins over rival Auburn and Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Everyone knew No. 2 was getting the ball last fall. Few, though, were able to slow him down.
For Henry, last season was one he’ll remember for a lifetime. The numbers. The records. The awards. The national championship win over Clemson that answered the previous year’s painful Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State. On his broad shoulders, the junior essentially carried one entire unit of the country’s top team, yet he remained the modest kid from Yulee throughout.
“Derrick is just a great all-around guy and an even better teammate,” said DT Jarran Reed who spent the past two seasons with the Crimson Tide. “Even in the locker room, when it was only us, he never boasted. He’s humble, without an ounce of arrogance. Derrick always works hard and practices hard, and everyone around him picks up on that. For him, it’s always all about the team, all about winning.”
Henry is adept at deflecting. He deflects incoming defenders on the field and attention when he’s away from it. What the bruising back with the tranquil demeanor couldn’t repel in 2015 was the respect and admiration heaped upon him by teammates, fans and opponents. Henry earned all of it by not only outperforming his peers, but by also doing it with the utmost class, humility and reverence to his supporting cast.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.