TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It would have been a great question to ask during the fall of 2009: Is it normal for high school freshmen to rush for nearly 2,500 yards on the varsity squad?
Just like, three years later, it would have been logical to pose the following sports query: Is it normal for high school seniors to rush for nearly 4,300 yards and 55 touchdowns in a single season?
The answers to both questions would have warranted emphatic “no” responses. From the moment Derrick Henry suited up for Yulee High School — a mid-size school north of Jacksonville, Florida — he began shattering local and state rushing records with astonishing aplomb.
By extension, Henry altered the perception of how schoolboy stars should be judged in the future — a major accomplishment in the blue-chip-producing, football-mad state of Florida.
This isn’t a direct comparison of the two eras, per se; but in the late 1980s, Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith dominated the recruiting headlines — before the days of Rivals.com, 24/7 Sports, ESPN.com, etc. — by rushing for 8,804 yards/106 touchdowns during his career at Escambia High School (Pensacola, Florida). At the time, according to various sources, it ranked among the greatest career tallies in American scholastic football history.
Subsequently, it also became one of the biggest coups in Gators history when Smith picked Florida as his college choice (1987).
(Note: You won’t find any YouTube links of Smith choosing Florida during the fall/winter periods of 1986-87; but there is a great clip of Smith taking on future Miami Hurricane quarterback Craig Erickson in something called the “First Annual Florida Classic” at Florida Field, home of the Gators. These were simpler times, for sure.)
Fast forward to Henry’s Yulee High career, less than a quarter-century later: The three-sport star (football, basketball, track) reportedly collected 2,465 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns as a freshman, 2,788 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns as a sophomore, 2,610 rushing yards, 34 scores as a junior and a state-record 4,261 rushing and 55 touchdowns as a senior.
Putting that into perspective, Henry’s senior campaign was nearly half of Emmitt Smith’s career marks at Escambia.
As such, it’s fair to wonder what the state of SEC football might resemble in 2015, if Henry had selected UGA or Tennessee over Alabama, in advance of Signing Day 2013:
Would the Henry-enhanced Volunteers be on the verge of clinching an SEC East title? Or would Henry have stood out among the Bulldogs’ cadre of esteemed tailbacks over the last three seasons — featuring Todd Gurley (possible NFL Rookie Of The Year candidate), Keith Marshall (a Gurley-like talent before injuries occurred) and Nick Chubb (potential top-10 prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft)?
Instead, Henry opted for the romance and championship pedigree of Alabama football and its driven head coach, Nick Saban (four national titles this century — three in Tuscaloosa, Ala.). By extension, Henry entered into a situation where the Crimson Tide already had an established backfield hierarchy of All-American T.J. Yeldon … and everybody else. It was a risky gamble for Henry, signing with a program that’s typically stocked with 5-star runners at the bottom of the depth chart.
However, it became a wise decision, sooner than later. As a freshman, Henry had his so-called “breakout” performance in the Sugar Bowl, rolling for 161 total yards (100 rushing) and two touchdowns — off just nine touches (eight carries). He then branched out for 1,000-plus total yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore, Yeldon’s final season with the Tide.
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The expectations have gotten higher for Henry in 2015, no longer ceding the majority of carries to other Crimson Tide rushers. His campus celebrity profile has also been raised, with Henry owning the school record for most consecutive games with at least one touchdown (16 straight) — which also stands as an SEC record (formerly held by Florida’s Tim Tebow).
Henry also has an eminently reasonable chance at breaking Alabama’s single-season record for rushing touchdowns (21) — an honor currently shared between Henry and Trent Richardson (circa 2011).
“I’m not really worried about that … not really focused on things like that,” says the 21-year-old Henry, regarding the anticipation of solely capturing Alabama’s rushing-touchdown record.
At the same time, Henry could have easily been discussing the Heisman hype. He doesn’t like to call attention to himself (or sublime talents); instead, he prefers to rely on time-tested, default responses of “being focused on Auburn” (Iron Bowl Week) or touting his daily mission to “practice right, prepare right” — anything to power through the interviews, amid little fanfare.
Which brings us to this: Does Henry like doing interviews?
“Do I like interviews? I wouldn’t do ’em if I didn’t have to,” mused Henry on Monday, eliciting laughter from the assembled media at Alabama’s sprawling football facility.
Speaking of which, the second floor of the ‘Bama building serves as a wonderfully designed, meticulously manicured time capsule of Crimson Tide football glory — with various trophies, banners, plaques, photos, posters, ticket stubs and vignettes commemorating the greatest moments in school history. (The Alabama tradition traces back to 1892.)
But there’s one particular piece de resistance which stands alone in that open area: Mark Ingram’s Heisman Trophy, circa 2010, the only recipient in school history.
Henry has been reluctant to dream about winning his own Heisman, at least in a public forum. But he does have great admiration for one Heisman holder — former Ohio State tailback Eddie George (1,927 rushing, 24 TDs in 1995).
George and Henry had similar dimensions during their college heydays — at 6-foot-3, roughly 240 pounds — and the latter appreciated George’s bruising running style, not often found with tall tailbacks.
“(George was) very, very physical and didn’t let anyone tackle him,” says Henry, while unintentionally making the case for him serving as an “Eddie George 2.0” version. Of course, Henry indirectly couched that by saying, “I don’t pattern my game (after anyone) … I have my own running style.”
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It’s still baffling that Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball finished fourth in the 2011 Heisman Trophy balloting.
This isn’t to knock the stellar work of Heisman winner Robert Griffin III (Baylor), Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck (second place) or even Alabama’s Richardson (third place), but Ball absurdly amassed 2,239 total yards (1,923 rushing) and 39 touchdowns (33 rushing) for the 2011 Badgers, who won the Big Ten championship and narrowly lost to Oregon in a Rose Bowl for the ages.
In any other year, Ball would have cruised to Heisman glory. Instead, he stands famously with the cluster of hard-luck, fourth-place finishers — such as Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel (2007), Miami tailback Willis McGahee (2002), Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins (1994), Michigan State tailback Lorenzo White (1987), Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill (1983), Pitt quarterback Dan Marino (1981), Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter (1979), Kansas quarterback Dave Jaynes (1973) and Penn State tight end Ted Kwalick (1968).
Henry, at the current rate of production, likely won’t end up as the third runner-up for this year’s award. Heisman winners typically enjoy a stats bonanza and hail from elite-level programs with strong seasonal records. Heading into Iron Bowl Week, No. 2 Alabama can clinch the SEC West title with a victory over Auburn; plus, Henry currently ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards — trailing a fellow SEC competitor by only 56 yards.
(Check … and check.)
In fact, charting the last five Heisman-winning tailbacks of the last 25 years (Mark Ingram, Ron Dayne, Ricky Williams, Eddie George, Rashaan Salaam), the quintet averaged 1,960 rushing yards and 18.4 touchdowns during their respective dreams seasons. Henry’s current numbers (1,526 rushing yards, 21 TDs) extrapolate to 1,943 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns over 14 games — easily within that range of legacy-defining Heisman recipients.
That doesn’t necessarily make this process any easier for Henry. Yes, he’s acutely aware of his place in the Heisman race. Henry might even be learned of the southern-based perception that he’s the front-runner for college football’s most prestigious individual honor. Regular sessions with the local press, coupled with high-profile national interviews (like Dan Patrick’s radio show), could easily allow Henry to fall victim to the overt task of trying to win the award.
But what’s the point in that? Three weeks ago, Leonard Fournette (the nation’s current rushing leader; 150-plus rushing yards in his first seven games) stood as the consensus choice for the Heisman. But a pedestrian outing against Alabama (31 rushing yards, one TD) quickly vanquished the notion of Fournette perhaps becoming one of the highest-percentage vote-getters in Heisman history.
On that same day at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Henry ravaged the LSU defense for 210 rushing yards and three touchdowns, effectively swinging the Heisman mojo in his favor. In the postgame media session, Henry downplayed the titanic tailback clash, demurring, “Too much talk about Fournette and me. I’m just trying to win with the Crimson Tide.”
Even the normally stoic Saban seemed blown away by Henry’s performance against the Tigers, briefly gushing, “I can’t say enough about Derrick Henry.”
The following Saturday, with Alabama holding court against Mississippi State on the road, the Crimson Tide coaches tapped Henry as their third-down savior, ordering a simple run up the gut during a typical must-pass situation … and Henry rewarded the hunch with a 74-yard touchdown run, transforming a reasonably close score (14-3) into a 21-3 thumping shortly before halftime.
Come the second Saturday of December, the out-of-nowhere, third-and-9 touchdown might represent Henry’s award-clinching memory of this Heisman campaign.
And then last week, Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott, perhaps the Midwest’s primary choice for Heisman contention, carried the ball only 12 times in the Buckeyes’ shocking home loss to Michigan State — including just one rush in the second half.
On the surface, this wouldn’t have seemed like such a big deal … if Elliott hadn’t made national headlines by publicly calling out the OSU coaches for his lack of touches.
It stands to reason Elliott (1,458 rushing yards, 17 TDs) might have gotten caught in that tricky conundrum of helping the Buckeyes stay undefeated and bolstering his individual numbers for the Heisman. But don’t expect a similar fate involving the cool, collected and team-focused Henry (seven outings of multiple touchdowns in 2015), covering the next two weekends.
If that weren’t true, fans outside the state of Alabama might have already known that Henry rushed for just 68 yards (on nine carries) against Charleston Southern last Saturday.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.