TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — High-definition television and floating camera angles give today’s college football fans a better view of the game than ever before. But to fully appreciate the brute strength of Alabama running back Derrick Henry, a prime spot on the couch won’t do. Just ask the guy who hands the ball to Henry.
“When you see him run on the field, it’s a lot different than seeing him on TV, I can tell you that,” Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker says. “Some of those plays, I see him punish people. I sit back there and I’m like, gosh, I feel bad for that guy.”
Perhaps few outside of Alabama’s locker room get the full dose of Henry, one of the most gifted runners in the nation. Yet somehow the junior enters Saturday’s matchup with No. 4 LSU playing second fiddle to another high-profile player. De facto Heisman Trophy frontrunner Leonard Fournette plays for the Tigers, and for the moment anyway, the Bayou Bengals’ sophomore is considered the best player in the country.
For Henry, Saturday’s matchup at Bryant-Denny Stadium is more than just a clash of SEC West contenders; it’s a chance to show how important he is to the offense of a College Football Playoff contender. Henry could establish himself as the best running back in college football along the way.
Fournette has outperformed Henry statistically so far—the Alabama junior ranks second in the SEC to Fournette in rushing yards (1,044), rushing touchdowns (14) and yards-per-game (130.5)—and the Tigers’ star has controlled the Heisman conversation. This week online sports book Bovada listed Fournette as the odds-on Heisman favorite (4/9), while Henry earned the fifth-best odds (14/1) among contenders.
Those numbers run counter to the way in which Henry’s teammates view his talent. “I don’t know how much people are talking about him,” center Ryan Kelly said, “But I know how much we love him. We cherish how hard he runs and how good a player he is. I don’t think he cares about the outsiders or what everybody’s saying about him.”
Indeed, Henry doesn’t put much stock in external chatter. Saturday’s game is being billed as a battle of running backs, though Henry isn't focused on that narrative. “No,” he says. “I just try to focus on how I prepare all week.”
Henry spent much of the last two years biding his time in Alabama’s backfield behind T.J. Yeldon. But Henry still managed to impose his will: As a true freshman in 2013, Henry averaged 10.9 yards per attempt on 35 carries, and last season he played like a starter when he rushed for 1,044 yards. That included a season-high 141 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri in the SEC title game.
When Yeldon departed this off-season, Henry became the top option at a position that’s produced a long line of greatness. The last running back to win the Heisman, Mark Ingram in 2009, hailed from Alabama. Two years later Trent Richardson finished third in the Heisman voting, and in 2012 Eddie Lacy earned first-team All-SEC honors as a member of the Tide’s national champion squad. That’s why Henry respects history each time he takes the field. “Just knowing what the standard is,” Henry says. “The guys in previous years set the standard. It’s our job to keep it going.”
This season Henry has done just that. Two weeks ago he set a career high with 236 rushing yards (7.4 yards per carry) in a 41–23 win at Texas A&M. Dating back to last season, when he earned starts against Western Carolina and Ohio State, Henry now has 1,246 yards and 16 touchdowns in 10 games as a starter.
This fall the Crimson Tide have leaned on Henry while Coker acclimated to his new role as a starting quarterback. But this isn’t the same passing attack from last season, when Blake Sims and Amari Cooper formed one of the more dynamic quarterback-wide receiver combinations in college football. After Alabama finished third in the SEC in yards per pass attempt (8.6) last season, Coker and this year's receivers have managed just 7.1 yards per attempt, good for just 10th in the conference.
Henry has stepped up to carry the load. “I don’t think you can say enough about the way he’s played,” Saban says. “He’s shown great competitive character and been very productive, not only in the way he’s carried the ball, but in pass protection.”
Henry recognized greatness even before he got to Alabama. As a prep standout at Yulee (Fla.) High, he watched clips of great rushers like Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden and Marshawn Lynch and strived to mimic them on Friday nights. The 6’3”, 240-pound Henry went on to break a 51-year-old national high school rushing record with 12,124 career yards. After arriving in Tuscaloosa, he quietly watched Yeldon go about his business as Alabama’s starter. That helped shape the soft-spoken Henry’s approach to the spotlight: Let my play do the talking.
In his time at Alabama, Henry has gotten close with other SEC running backs—he still talks to former Georgia star Todd Gurley, now with the St. Louis Rams—but he has yet to meet Fournette. Still, Henry has seen enough LSU highlights to appreciate Fournette’s prowess. “He starts fast and finishes strong running downhill,” Henry says. “He can make you miss any way you go. He can do it all. He’s just a great running back who does a lot for his team.”
Saturday’s game could create separation between the SEC’s two best rushers, but it’s about more than just bragging rights. LSU (No. 2) and Alabama (No. 4) both appeared in would-be semifinal spots of the first College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday. The Tigers could potentially lose and still make the four-team field. A second loss for the Tide, however, would end their shot at a national title. Recent history suggests viewers should buckle up: During Saban’s tenure at Alabama, six of his nine meetings with LSU have been decided by seven points or fewer, with three going to overtime.
But national implications aren’t enough to distract from the well-documented matchup of running backs. Henry’s complimentary description of Fournette comes with a degree of irony: Most of Henry’s opponents would heap similar praise on him. With a monster performance against LSU on Saturday, the rest of the country might see what Henry’s teammates already do. “One thing I definitely think: He gets overshadowed for sure,” Coker says. “The guy’s a beast.”