Maximum impact: Derrick Henry hits the hole like a freight train, but that isn't all he brings to Alabama
This story appears in the Dec. 14, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Bobby Ramsay saw the look every day at practice for four seasons. The Yulee (Fla.) High coach also saw it on Friday nights in the fall. Now he sees it when he watches Alabama. The look, Ramsay says, mixes a hint of fear with heaps of resignation and a trace of dread. No matter whether the player is bound for the NFL or LSAT, would-be tacklers all appear the same when 6' 3", 242-pound junior Derrick Henry takes a handoff and hits the hole: Their shoulders slump, faces sag and bodies tense in anticipation of the collision to come.
"It's more like thrusting yourself into something you know is going to be unpleasant, but you do it anyway," says Ramsay, who coached Henry from 2009 to '12. "Then you're hanging on for dear life. Then you're going back to the huddle thinking, I have to do that again?"
Ramsay knows this look well because three years before Henry broke Herschel Walker's 34-year-old SEC single-season rushing record with 1,986 yards—and counting—to become a Heisman Trophy finalist, he finished his Yulee career with 12,212, crushing Ken (the Sugar Land Express) Hall's 59-year-old national high school mark. Ramsay also knows how a Henry run feels since he stood directly behind the linebackers when the Hornets did full-contact running drills. "The only thing I can equate it to," Ramsay says, "is standing on the sidewalk and a Jeep goes by doing 40."
Nearly everyone tasked with tackling Henry or coaching people to tackle Henry has a vehicular analogy—but most choose a more menacing mode of transportation. "It's literally like a freight train hitting you," says Gunnar Cox, a Jacksonville safety who had to bring down Henry in practice as a 5' 8", 165-pound Yulee linebacker. Cox learned early not to hit Henry head-on. No matter. If Cox tried to take a better angle, Henry would stiff-arm Cox and carry him for five to 10 yards.
"I don't know if fast-moving semi is a good visual," says Florida coach Jim McElwain, whose defense gave up 189 yards to Henry during No. 2 Alabama's 29–15 win in Saturday's SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. "There was this movie one time about this train that was, like, out of control, going really fast and they had to stop it before it blew up the city." (That would be Unstoppable, with Denzel Washington.)
"McElwain described it perfectly," says Chris Murdock, a North Florida student who played with Henry as a 5' 7", 180-pound Yulee linebacker. "Imagine a train coming at you or just running into a big concrete wall."
Henry calls to mind Eric Dickerson and Eddie George, 6' 3" runners with speed, power and agility who showed that a higher center of gravity isn't an impediment to racking up yards. But because of the way the game has changed—offenses have spread the field, and NFL teams have been reluctant to spend huge money on backs—it's almost surprising that someone with Henry's build and burst wound up carrying the ball instead of chasing quarterbacks. That, coaches and family members say, happened only because Henry refused to contemplate doing anything else.
Those close to Henry call him Shocka, the nickname his paternal grandmother, Gladys, coined when she learned her teenage son, also named Derrick, was going to become a father himself. Surrounded by Florida fans, Shocka grew to idolize Tim Tebow, the jumbo-sized QB who piled up yards and touchdowns in winning two national championships and the 2007 Heisman.
Henry's Tebowesque tendency to run over defenders gained notice early. J.T. Medley, who coached Henry in middle school, recalls that Nassau County made a rule that required coaches to pull starters when a team went up by 18 points—a regulation that he believes was put in place to keep Henry from scoring so much. During one game when Henry was an eighth-grader, Yulee's principal came to the sideline to make sure Medley followed the rule. It was the first quarter.
As a junior, Henry and Ramsay met with then Florida coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Ramsay assumed Henry would play tailback for the Gators, but Muschamp and Quinn liked Henry as a defender. So did plenty of other colleges. Those coaches stressed the money defensive ends and rush linebackers can make in an NFL that places the highest value on quarterbacks and the players who sack them. They pointed out the longer average careers of pass rushers compared to running backs. Henry didn't care. He wanted to carry the ball.
Mark Richt preferred that Henry do that at Georgia, and Henry was prepared to, but Alabama didn't give up. Eventually coach Nick Saban and running backs coach Burton Burns persuaded Henry that their pro-style offense perfectly suited his downhill style. Henry chose the Crimson Tide in a televised announcement on the morning of his head-to-head showdown with future Florida back Kelvin Taylor, who played for Glades Day in Belle Glade, Fla. Then Henry outrushed Taylor 363 yards to 222 in a 42–6 Hornets win.
The two clashed again last Saturday, and Henry's team again emerged victorious. Two years earlier Henry wondered if he'd chosen correctly in going to Tuscaloosa. The Tide had just concluded the regular season of his freshman year with an Iron Bowl loss to Auburn on the Kick Six, and for Christmas break he went home to Yulee (pop. 11,491), a dot between Jacksonville and the resorts of Amelia Island, where Georgians used to buy lottery tickets before their state got a lottery of its own. During that visit Henry made clear that he was unhappy. After carrying only 27 times in his first 12 games, Henry poured out his frustration to his family and the high school coaches he considered family. Team Henry convened a meeting one night in Medley's kitchen. "He wasn't used to disappointment," says Pat Dunlap, another Yulee High assistant close to Henry. "He wasn't used to things not immediately going his way."
The coaches asked Henry if he had made his feelings known to Saban. Henry admitted he hadn't; he didn't want to seem like a whiner. They told him he needed to meet with Saban and Burns when he returned to Tuscaloosa and discuss his concerns like a man. Medley stressed that while uncomfortable, such conversations come with being an adult. "You're going to get a boss one day," Medley says. "You're going to need to be able to argue your point and sell yourself and your self-worth." Meanwhile, Henry's father urged him to return to campus with a good attitude. "We told him to stick it out," Derrick Sr. says. "You never know how things are going to turn out. Tough times don't last."
They didn't. Before Henry returned to school, Medley called ahead to apprise Saban and Burns. The Tide coaches were stunned to hear that Henry was unhappy. They said he had made exemplary progress as a freshman; in fact, he had practiced so well before the break that they intended get Henry carries behind sophomore back T.J. Yeldon in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. After meeting with Saban and Burns, Henry wound up carrying eight times for 100 yards and a touchdown in Alabama's 45–31 loss.
At that point Henry knew where he stood with the coaches. He gained 990 yards on 5.8 per carry as a sophomore, and after Alabama's Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1, Henry knew the rest of the team now looked to him as a leader. That's why even on spring break in Panama City Beach, Fla., last March, Henry led teammates through workouts in the sand. "We were on the beach doing push-ups and sit-ups," senior linebacker Reggie Ragland says, smiling. "Just normal stuff, keeping our bodies fit for the girls." In the summer Henry posted Instagram videos of himself pushing Medley's Ford F-150 pickup and flipping tires. When he saw the videos on the news a few hours later, the attention-averse Henry took them down.
Henry was wise to prepare so thoroughly, because college was about to feel a lot more like high school. Saban had planned to split carries this season between Henry and senior Kenyan Drake, just as he had between Henry and Yeldon, Yeldon and Eddie Lacy, Lacy and Trent Richardson. Saban wants his runners to have fresh legs, and he uses his platoon system as a recruiting pitch, telling backs they won't endure too much wear on their way to the NFL. But with Henry running so well, he shouldered much of the load even before Drake broke his right arm against Mississippi State in Week 11. While outgaining LSU sophomore back Leonard Fournette 210 to 31 on Nov. 7, Henry carried 38 times—including 12 on the final possession when Alabama milked the final 9:18 off the clock. Against Auburn the Tide handed off to Henry 19 times in the fourth quarter. He finished with 271 yards, breaking Bo Jackson's Iron Bowl record on a career-high 46 totes. Those who know Henry back in Yulee say he needs at least 25 carries to get properly warmed up, and Alabama senior center Ryan Kelly marvels at Henry's ability to get stronger through the fourth quarter. "You think, This is probably starting to add up on his body a little bit, but he never shows it, never talks about it, never complains," Kelly says.
After the Auburn game, reporters asked Henry about his workload. "The ball isn't that heavy," he said. Henry had used a variation of that same line—first made famous by USC coach John McKay in 1967—on Nov. 16, 2012 when he broke Hall's record. Ramsay's main concern that season was convincing opposing coaches and parents that his jumbo back belonged in high school. "The only person with a more controversial birth certificate was Barack Obama," Ramsay says.
The coach knew about Hall's mark but couldn't see how the math would work. Henry needed 3,369 yards as a senior. The problem solved itself: Without other options Ramsay had to keep feeding his big back. When Henry gained 455 yards in a November win against West Nassau High, he was in striking distance, and he broke through in Yulee's first playoff game, finishing the year with 4,261 yards and 55 scores on 462 carries.
Henry won't rush that much for the Tide, but his increased workload allowed him to break the SEC yardage record set by the platinum standard for SEC backs. Asked just how good Henry is, Ragland fires back, "He passed Herschel Walker, didn't he?" Henry broke Walker's record while playing two more games, but he did it on 39 fewer carries than Walker had in 1981.
On Saturday, Henry will try to replicate what Walker did in 1982, when he hoisted the Heisman Trophy. As his candidacy progressed, Henry asked his inner circle not to talk about the Heisman no matter how much reporters asked. In interviews, he refused to take credit for his yardage—dishing it instead to his offensive line. "He's going to give all the credit to us," Kelly says, "but I'll give the credit to him." If Henry is indeed the locomotive his former tacklers claim him to be, he is carrying an entire offense on board. "I don't know that I've coached many players that actually set a better example to affect other people," Saban says. "He doesn't really do it for himself. He does it for them."
Just another way Henry makes a big impact.