TUSCALOOSA, ALA. – Alabama didn’t get to be Alabama by being dumb as a pine stump.
So, it has this running back who is built like restaurant freezer with legs. Where some players may use spring break as a time to work on their mug shot collection, this guy has been known to transform a Florida beach into a Gold’s Gym with a view. And on the football field, he doesn’t really even begin to get serious about a run until he has turned at least two would-be tacklers into lawn dwarfs.
And it occurred to the Crimson Tide leaders about a third of the way into this season that perhaps this was a guy they needed to feature in the offense.
Coaches become millionaires for insight like that. And the Crimson Tide roll on as a result, a big favorite in Saturday’s SEC championship game vs. Florida and a big factor again in the national championship sweepstakes.
Derrick Henry comes to the Georgia Dome one week after carrying the ball 46 times against Auburn (for 271 yards), at one point running out the clock with 14 straight rushes. This ain’t baseball, and he doesn’t work on a pitch count.
“All those carries, he had a lot of people thinking he was tired,” Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “Derrick wasn’t tired. Derrick kept running harder as he kept going. That’s the type of guy he is. His mindset goes up as the competition goes up. When it’s crunch time, that’s eating time.
“Derrick don’t get tired.”
“When you see a guy run 46 times and not slow down, not hurt at all, it’s like playing with the biggest guy on the playground,” Tide quarterback Jake Coker said. “It’s like: What are you going to do to stop this guy? It’s just about impossible.”
The bad news for Florida is that Henry has tended to save his best work for ranked SEC opponents. Three of his four 200-plus-yard games this season — a single-season total only matched in the conference by noted long-distance truckers Herschel Walker of Georgia and Bo Jackson of Auburn — have come against that exact demographic.
In one of those games, matched against the then-presumptive Heisman favorite, LSU back Leonard Fournette, Henry flipped the script. He went for 210 against the Tigers while Fournette was held to a mere 31. And now it is the Alabama junior who is positioned to break the tyranny of quarterbacks come next week’s Heisman ceremony.
Henry is supremely outfitted for long days of collision sport. Beyond the 6-3, 242-pound frame, he possesses an outlook that prepares him as well as one can be for the hard duty.
Teammates were well aware of his appetite for physical labor, and they had been almost since his arrival here from little Yulee, Fla. But the attitude never seemed to take the day off. On spring break this year, Henry was an instigator in setting up make-shift workouts in the beach sand, just to keep everyone in tune.
“I didn’t want to miss a beat,” Henry remembered. “We were having fun but I was like, ‘Hey, we got to get some work in.’ So we started doing push-ups, running in the sand, doing anything to get us a sweat and make us feel good.”
“I just love working hard,” he said. “If you want things to happen you got to work hard for it. Pushing trucks, flipping tires (other facets of his downtime workout regimen) — I just want to do anything to help me get better.”
Henry, who grew up a big Florida fan in general, and a Tim Tebow man specifically, did not become the Gators’ chief concern overnight.
The line of running backs at Alabama typically stretches out the front door. And Henry hardly burst immediately upon the scene — in fact, you can combine his rushing totals for his first two seasons and still come in 425 yards shy of his work this year (1,797 yards).
All parties will tell you there were some little issues to tidy up first.
“By his own admission,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said, “when he first came here he talked a lot about how his experience as a running back was only carrying the ball. He had a lot to learn about pass offense, pass protection, being a receiver. And he certainly did a good job developing and improving in those areas.
“I think his understanding of our running plays and how to read those plays is something he has gotten better and better at as well.”
Alabama really seemed to get onboard with Henry following the loss to Ole Miss in the third game of the season. Through the first three games, Henry averaged 18 carries a game. After that, those dreadlocks began running downhill with far greater regularity, like 27 times a game.
Eureka, Alabama had set free its best player. “It just seemed to me that the offensive line made progress throughout the course of the year, and Derrick played better and better,” Saban explained. “We certainly need to create balance in our offense and do more things maybe. But (Henry’s running) is something that we’ve been able to do fairly well, and we certainly don’t want to give up on it.”
All this certainly has Florida’s attention.
Its coach, Jim McElwain, has compared Henry’s running style to the runaway train in any number of movies (think Denzel Washington in “Unstoppable”).
Its noted defensive back, Vernon Hargreaves, III, does not sound terribly keen on the idea of stepping in front of that train. “It’s not that fun,” he said. “When he has a full head of steam coming at you, he can make you miss, he can run you over. You’ve got to hold on and wait for the boys to get there.”
They’ll certainly get heavy doses of Henry on Saturday, because Alabama, that crafty place, will figure it a good idea to deploy a record-setting runner.