Can Derrick Henry hoist the Heisman? Former winners weigh in
Last Saturday, after No. 2 Alabama sealed a College Football Playoff berth with a 29–15 win over No. 18 Florida in the SEC Championship Game, Derrick Henry finally got a chance to reminisce. The Crimson Tide tailback had just put a bow on his stellar junior season, rushing 44 times for 189 yards with a touchdown against the Gators. That pushed his 2015 rushing total to 1,986 yards, breaking Alabama's single-season record and Herschel Walker's all-time SEC mark (1,891) set in 1981.
But Henry's entry in the record books was just his latest milestone. A week earlier, in a 29–13 victory at Auburn, Henry's 271 rushing yards broke Bo Jackson's Iron Bowl single-game rushing record (256). Both Jackson and Walker won the Heisman Trophy, and suddenly Henry found himself listed among the greats at his position. "They are like my heroes, my football heroes," Henry said after the SEC title game. "Growing up and hearing their name and just watching what they did is incredible. For my name to be mentioned with theirs, it's an honor and a blessing."
Running backs have won the Heisman more times (41) than any position group, including quarterbacks (32), but pure rushers have struggled to gain a foothold in recent races. Since 2000 only one back—Alabama's Mark Ingram in '09—has claimed the award. That's mostly because the proliferation of spread offenses has spawned more dynamic quarterbacks who have overshadowed the production of traditional ball-carriers. Since Florida's Tim Tebow won in '07, five of the last seven trophies have gone to dual-threat quarterbacks.
"Nowadays, with the spread going on, throwing the ball left and right, quarterbacks are padding their stats and putting up crazy numbers," says Ingram, now a member of the New Orleans Saints. "[Wisconsin's] Melvin Gordon didn't even win it [in 2014], and he went for 2,000 yards. You have to put up insane numbers to win it at running back now."
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That trend could change this season. Henry and Stanford sophomore tailback Christian McCaffrey join Clemson sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson as Heisman finalists in New York. A host of other rushers like Florida State sophomore Dalvin Cook, Ohio State junior Ezekiel Elliott and LSU sophomore Leonard Fournette could easily finish in the top 10 of voting. But Henry has emerged as the most viable running back candidate for the Heisman in several years. This week online sports book Bovada pegged him as the odds-on favorite (1/12) to win the award, just ahead of McCaffrey (6/1), whose 3,496 all-purpose yards in 2015 broke Barry Sanders's NCAA single-season record (3,250) from 1988.
If Henry ultimately captures the trophy, he will have benefited from a lack of surefire quarterback contenders this fall. Yet his candidacy has been worthy. Henry finished the season as the FBS leader in rushing yards, and his 23 rushing touchdowns also led the country and set an SEC record. The junior became just the third back in SEC history—joining, yes, Jackson and Walker—to post four 200-yard rushing games in a season. As SB Nation's Bill Connelly noted this week, Henry ran for 484 yards against three opponents ranked in the Defensive S&P+ top 11 (Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin). Four other Alabama foes ranked in the top 30.
"[Henry's] strength is certainly what stands out to me," says Archie Griffin, a former Ohio State running back and the only two-time Heisman winner (1974-75). "I don't know exactly how tall he is, but I know he's big. That is really what's impressive: His strength, speed, his size and the fact that he can be elusive. He's not just going to run over you, he can run around you. Those are the ones that scare defenses a little bit; they know it takes more than one person to bring him down. They're going to take some punishment when they make that tackle because he's a very physical player."
George Rogers, who won the 1980 Heisman Trophy as a running back at South Carolina, compared Henry to former NFL standout Eric Dickerson. Like Henry, Dickerson was a sizable 6' 3" and 220 pounds, starring at SMU from 1979-83 and becoming the No. 2 overall pick in the '83 draft. Rogers sees a lot of Dickerson in Henry. "He isn't going to make very many moves, but he's going to run by you," Rogers says. "And he can take the punishment. You ain't gonna hit him many times."
That physicality has helped Henry break out this season. He has become one of the most durable backs in the country, carrying more times (339) than any other FBS player. (McCaffrey is second at 319.) Henry recorded 90 carries during Alabama's final two games, setting a program record with 46 rushes against Auburn. And the Tide routinely use Henry to wear down defenses; as Alabama nursed a lead during one key fourth-quarter series in the Iron Bowl, Henry ran 10 times for 56 yards to bleed 5:03 off the clock.
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"Running backs get the dirty yards," says Rogers. "That's what I call them—the five-yarders, the three-yarders. To get those, you go to your running back. … If you can run the ball four or five times in a row and gain a few yards every time, you're a pretty good running back."
If Henry proves the odds-makers correct, he'll join Ingram as only the second Alabama player to ever win the Heisman. But Henry first must emerge from of one of the tightest races in recent memory. McCaffrey and Watson both boast legitimate cases; the Cardinal back won the Paul Hornung Award recognizing the FBS's most versatile player, while Clemson's dual-threat passer is the headliner for the playoff's top-seeded team.
Still, Ingram won't be surprised if Henry winds up hoisting the trophy. The former Heisman winner recalls the next-man-up approach that defined his own career at Alabama. The year before he won the Tide's starting job, he bided his time behind 1,300-yard rusher Glen Coffee. "You push yourself to be better," Ingram says. "You push yourself to be great. Healthy competition is always good." Henry learned that lesson well, having spent the past two seasons backing up T.J. Yeldon in Alabama's backfield.
A win by either Henry or McCaffrey on Saturday will signal the end to award's quarterback-heavy streak. And some Heisman winners feel it's time the trophy returned to its most decorated position. "I think the Heisman should be given to a running back, anyway," Rogers says. "Just look at it: It ain't a quarterback. That's a running back running."