By Mark Mayfield
TUSCALOOSA, AL — I’ve stood on the sidelines at the end of more college football games than I can remember. Sometimes it’s been nothing short of riveting and tense to watch from field level as the final minutes disappear. No one, for instance, has forgotten Auburn’s 2013 Kick-6 against Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium. I was on the sidelines, on same end of the field where Chris Davis took off heading in the other direction and into history with the game-winning touchdown. The mayhem that followed was a tidal wave of bodies that engulfed anything and everything in its wake—including those of us standing around with our jaws dropped.
Earlier that season, however, there was no such drama unfolding as the clock fell below two minutes at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was the afternoon of Oct. 19, 2013, and this was setting up to be a yawner of an ending. The Crimson Tide led Arkansas 45-0, and if anything, Alabama coach Nick Saban was simply trying to run the clock out in a blowout game that was all but over. To that extent, Saban and his assistant coaches were emptying the bench, playing everyone with a helmet and shoulder pads.
I was standing with Marc Torrence and Charlie Potter, sports writers from The Crimson White, the student newspaper at Alabama, where I serve as editorial adviser, and lamenting the fact that Derrick Henry, this freshman running back all of us had been watching since his high school career, had received less than a handful of carries. Four other running backs—T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, Jalston Fowler, and Dee Hart—had entered the game before Henry.
Torrence, Potter and I were discussing the game, and Henry in particular. And whether I said it or not, I was certainly thinking: “Just run him.” This was the guy I had come from the press box to the sidelines in the waning minutes to see up close. What I didn’t realize, because Bama’s offense was operating on the opposite end of the field from where we stood, was that Henry had just taken a handoff on first down and rushed five yards into the pile of bodies in front of him. But on second down, here he came into full view, speeding around the corner at Alabama’s 20-yard line, and suddenly heading up field and toward us, breaking Arkansas’ defensive containment with speed and ease.
Seconds later, he was racing past us, with Arkansas defenders in useless pursuit behind him. As he went by, just a few feet from us on the sidelines, it was a sight you don’t forget: At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, this was a man of uncommonly large size for a running back, with deceptive speed. It’s one thing to see him from the press box, the stadium seats or on television. It’s quite another to see him at field level. The combination of his speed and power is remarkable.
“’It shouldn’t be possible for someone that large to fun that fast,’” Torrence said, or something similar to that, as Henry reached the end zone.
And then it was over as fast as it began. Henry’s 80-yard TD run, with an extra point added, ended the scoring at 52-0. The man who two years later would be on his way to New York City as one of three Heisman Trophy finalists, finished with 111 yards on just six carries that afternoon against the Razorbacks. Notably, Amari Cooper, who had been a freshman sensation a year earlier at wide receiver but struggled with a toe injury his sophomore year, caught his first touchdown pass of the 2013 in the game, a 30-yarder from quarterback A.J. McCarron.
One of the running backs ahead of Henry on the depth chart that day was Kenyan Drake, who didn’t let what became a defining moment in Henry’s early Alabama career pass without notice.
“I’m one of Derrick’s biggest fans,” Drake said after the game. “That’s his favorite thing, to hit the outside corner. I always tell him. ‘When you do it, I know you’re going to show your speed, so just don’t let anyone catch you from behind.’ He sure didn’t do that.”
I’m proud in a sort of shameless self-gratifying way to say I was on the Henry bandwagon from the moment he stepped on Alabama’s campus after an almost unbelievable high school career in Yulee, Florida, where he gained 12,124 yards in his four years, breaking a national high school record that had stood since 1953.
Still, there was a lot of talk when he committed to Alabama that somehow he was too big to be a running back on the college level, that he ran too upright, and probably should be playing defense instead. To their credit, Alabama coaches never considered switching him to defense. They knew what they had, and privately told boosters that he would be exactly what he became, the best running back in America.
So for the past three years, I’ve been tweeting the same thing over and over, that Bama would do well to simply run Henry when nothing else seemed to be working. I understand and agree that no team can simply run the ball every down. It takes a balanced offense to win championships. But there are times in games, most notably Alabama versus Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl a couple of years ago, and Bama-Ohio State last January, when I believe more carries from Henry might have made a difference in the outcomes.
Looking back at Henry’s Alabama career, though, it’s tricky business, indeed, to say he should have had more carries. Other factors, such as a running back’s ability to block when he doesn’t have the ball and his growth as a team player, are all part of what Nick Saban would call “the process.” And it’s not like Alabama didn’t have other top-level running backs ahead of Henry in the rotation.
As it was, Henry got 36 carries his freshman season in 2013, and he made the most of them, with 382 yards—a whopping 10.6-yards per-carry average—and three touchdowns. He was still not the featured back in his sophomore year (T.J. Yeldon was) but nevertheless Henry led all rushers with 990 yards and tied Yeldon with 11 TDs.
Then we come to this season, a monster year in which Henry set an SEC single-season record with 1,986 yards on 339 carries, and 23 touchdowns. And so he is on his way to the Heisman ceremony in New York, then back to Tuscaloosa to prepare for the College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan State on New Year’s Eve.
Nevertheless, there remains a perception among SEC-detractors, in particular, that Henry’s yardage total has been the result of a great Alabama offensive line and a heavy dose of carries. Some of that is true, of course, but anyone who has seen Henry run understands most of his yardage (nearly 70 percent, in fact) has come after contact this season. And there have been many times when he made something of nothing, bouncing to the outside when there was no gap between the tackles, and outracing defensive ends and linebackers around the corner.
His workload increased dramatically as the season progressed. As The Birmingham News and Al.com columnist Kevin Scarbinksy so aptly pointed out this week: Henry had a combined total of just 53 carries in Alabama’s four non-conference games this season. And it must be noted that Henry had to face three teams currently ranked among the top 10 in total defense (Florida, Wisconsin and Georgia) and six of the top 50. He had his best games against them.
One thing is for certain, as I look back on it: Alabama could not have made the College Football Playoff this year without Derrick Henry. There was little doubt, for instance, in this year’s Iron Bowl that the Crimson Tide was going to win or lose on Derrick Henry’s back. Auburn’s players knew it. Their coaches knew it. And they could do nothing to stop him.
As Henry was en route to a 271-yard rushing performance that Nov. 28 afternoon, I smiled when I received this text from my Marc Torrence, now a reporter and editor in New York: “You must be loving this season.”
No doubt I am.