The Saban 250: It's Henry the Great at No. 1

BamaCentral marks the end of the Nick Saban coaching era with the definitive rankings of his top 250 players with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Nov 28, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (2) races past Auburn Tigers defenders and scores a touchdown in the fourth quarter to beat the Auburn Tigers 29-13 Jordan Hare Stadium.
Nov 28, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (2) races past Auburn Tigers defenders and scores a touchdown in the fourth quarter to beat the Auburn Tigers 29-13 Jordan Hare Stadium. / John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It's now considered one of the more eyebrow-raising stories in Alabama football lore, especially if you've seen some of the jaw-dropping videos of Derrick Henry's offseason workouts. Over the years they've been called everything from unreal to insane, but it's not like he suddenly started doing them once he reached the National Football League.

Go back to when Henry was was a freshman with the Crimson Tide, and some were predicting that he would end up moving up to linebacker due to his size and strength. Those claims were swatted away like smaller defenders throughout his Crimson Tide career, and Nick Saban did likewise from the media podium during press conferences. However one player quickly caught on to the running back's potential regardless of where he played on the field, his first roommate at Alabama, tight end O.J. Howard.

“He's just a freak," Howard said about their early-enrollee time together. "He's my roommate and he scares me sometimes just walking around. ... He's a guy who works really hard. He gets up at night and does push-ups."

Have you ever seen Henry do pushups? There's nothing ordinary about them, with or without a big metal chain around his neck while balancing on an exercise ball and a resistance ban, or massive weights on his back.

It's with that in mind that Henry tops the Saban 250 as the player who made the biggest impact of the Saban era at Alabama. Fundamentally, there are three reasons why:

1) His production. In 2015, Henry established a new SEC single-season rushing record of 2,219 yards, topping the likes of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson. It's still 500-plus yards more than anyone else in Crimson Tide history.

2) He carried a Crimson Tide team to a national championship like no one else, and scored three rushing touchdowns in the 2015 title game. Moreover, Henry was the first player in Alabama history to win the national player of the year trifecta — the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award— in addition to the Doak Walker Award as the game's best running back.

3) He's probably the playmaker in the entire Saban 250 who everyone else would least want to face one-on-one. Some of them had to every day in practice.

“He's 6-4, 240 and runs like a 5-10 guy. So he's a big guy. A lot of people are scared to tackle him.”

linebacker Reggie Ragland

There are scores of examples of Henry stiff-arming and running over opponents, and plenty of jaw-dropping performances like the LSU game on Nov. 7, when he easily won his showdown with Leonard Fournette by bulldozing his way to 210 rushing yards and three touchdowns. But here are three other examples of how a single play could change a game, and reflected his growth with the Crimson Tide.

1) The breakout, Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl

Although Alabama was still reeling from the Kick-6 loss at Auburn, which cost it a shot at playing for a threepeat, and the Crimson Tide lost to the Sooners 45-31, Henry described his game as a “dream come true.” It was during bowl practices, and having a chance to sort of go through everything a second time, that things started to really click for him at the collegiate level.

Nearly every Crimson Tide fan remembers what happened next. After moving up to second on the depth chart during bowl practices, he had an impressive 100 rushing yards on eight carries and turned his first career reception into a 61-yard touchdown. Henry averaged 12.5 yard per rush and 17.9 yards per touch in the game, and even had a tackle on special teams.

But it was a play in which he didn’t touch the ball that might have best demonstrated his progress over the course of his rookie season. On AJ McCarron’s 67-yard bomb for a touchdown to wide receiver DeAndrew White, Henry made the key blitz pickup that helped give the quarterback enough time to make the throw.

Compared to Alabama’s first game of the 2013 season against Virginia Tech, when Henry struggled while trying to do something foreign to him, block, the difference was night and day.  

“During my first practice here, I was like 'Oh snap. Everybody's flying around,’” he said. “It was kind of crazy.” Henry wasn’t referring to just one play or player either. “Everybody,” he continued. “Linemen. Linemen moving fast. I was like 'Oh my God. Everybody moving fast.' Linebackers. Everybody was moving fast. I was like 'Good God.'”

Henry had broken Ken Hall's 51-year-old national rushing record with 12,124 yards after rushing for 4,261 as a senior at Yulee High School in Florida, but he quickly learned that playing at the next level was about a lot more than taking handoffs and hitting the hole.

“By his own admission, one day he told me, 'Coach, all they ever did was just toss me the ball and I ran with it,’” Saban said. “So all this other stuff that I need to learn about playing running back like pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield and all those kinds of things, I really need to learn.' I think those are the areas he's really improved on dramatically.”

2) The 2015 Opener Against Wisconsin

Fast-forward a year and Henry had become more of a complete running back, and more than just an offensive weapon. It showed against the Badgers at A&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where Wisconsin was simply overmatched.

In addition to having 147 rushing yards on just 13 carries and three touchdowns, he threw a block that could only be described as punishing. Alabama had first down at the Wisconsin 32-yard line early in the third quarter, when the Badgers attacked up the middle and with Jake Coker dropping back the senior quarterback could have potentially been in serious trouble. Only Henry stepped forward and promptly stonewalled the charging linebacker.

It didn’t hurt that the running back was actually bigger than the player he was blocking, T.J. Edwards, who had all of his momentum vanish on impact. It made sense that Wisconsin wanted to test the offense playing with nine new starters, everyone except center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson, however Alabama looked like a veteran unit and didn't have any turnovers. Henry by himself outscored the Badgers in the 35-17 win, and Alabama outgained the Badgers on the ground 238-40.

“Any time you can look up and see No. 2 running down the field with a whole bunch of guys chasing him, that’s an awesome feeling," Kelly said.

3) Michigan State in the CFP Playoff

When Henry finished the first quarter with five carries for 15 yards, a lot of Alabama fans were left scratching their heads, especially after he had 46 attempts at Auburn and 44 against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Nevertheless, the turning point occurred after a scoreless first quarter when Henry ran over Darian Hicks and the cornerback had to leave the game. After Alabama got a first down at midfield offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin took a shot downfield to freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley that fell incomplete, but both he and Saban saw the matchup change that would spell the Spartans' demise: They were left trying to cover the slot receiver with a safety.

“I just said that we’re going to go,” Saban said. “The next time we did it that’s when we made a big play.”

Ridley caught a 50-yard bomb that set up Alabama’s first touchdown, a 1-yard plunge by Henry with defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed serving as fullbacks. It was about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and devastatingly effective. The Crimson Tide went on to win 38-0.

“It’s sort of a Catch-22,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said about the decision to try and stop Henry or Ridley. The Spartans chose Henry, but there obviously wasn’t a viable answer.

Alabama running back Derrick Henry on the cover of the Sports Illustrated 2015 college football season preview
Alabama running back Derrick Henry on the cover of the Sports Illustrated 2015 college football season preview /

As a balll caarrier, Henry was without peer in one regard especially. Time and time again, he was simply a workhouse and beat down the opposition as the game progressed. The opponent or location often didn't matter. The 2014 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta against Missouri? He had 140 yards despite not starting. Kyle Field at Texas A&M? No problem, 236 rushing yards. The Iron Bowl and rival Auburn? A career-best 271 yards.

“When the lights come on, he’s going to go out there and be productive for us,” Howard said. “He’s one of those guys. You can’t really say enough about him when the lights come on.”

Go back to the Wisconsin game, one of four times in 2015 that he scored three rushing touchdowns, and each only added to his legacy. Henry only needed a seam on Alabama's second possession to score a 37-yard touchdown. His second score, 56 yards through the left side on the Crimson Tide's second offensive snap of the second half pretty much broke the Badgers. The third trip into the end zone he just plowed through the left side for a 2-yard touchdown. Wisconsin didn’t seem too interested in trying to stop him any more, and Alabama obliged by pulling him later in the third quarter.

The performance also caused Howard to change his pushup tale. When subsequently asked if he had a sequel to it the tight end simply referred to the Wisconsin game. “That’s the new updated story,” Howard said.

The Saban 250: 1-5

The Saban 250 ranks the players who made the biggest impact during his time with the Crimson Tide (2007-23).

1. Derrick Henry, RB, 2013-15

• Won 2015 Heisman Trophy
• 2015 Maxwell Award
• 2015 Walter Camp Award
• 2015 Doak Walker Award
• 2015 unanimous All-American
• 2015 SEC Offensive Player of the Year
• 2015 All-SEC
• Second-round selection in 2016 NFL Draft
• Rushed for a school- and Southeastern Conference record 2,219 yards, which led the nation and was the fifth most in a single-season by an FBS player in college football history
• Set an SEC record with 28 rushing touchdowns, snapping Tim Tebow and Tre Mason's old mark of 23
• Set the Alabama single-season record with 10 100-yard rushing games and four 200-yard games, which broke Bobby Humphrey's school record (3) set in 1986. Only the third running back in SEC history (Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson) to have four 200-yard games in a single season
• Broke Shaun Alexander's record for most career rushing yards in Alabama history
• Played in 39 games over three seasons and totaled 602 carries for a school-record 3,591 yards and 42 rushing touchdowns. He also had 285 yards on 17 career receptions with three receiving scores
• Set the school record with 11 consecutive games with a rushing touchdown and finished his career 20 straight, which was the most in the SEC history
• Team captain

Alabama running back Derrick Henry on the cover of Sports Illustrated's commemorative edition for the 2015 national title
Alabama running back Derrick Henry on the cover of Sports Illustrated's commemorative edition for the 2015 national title /

2. Bryce Young, QB, 2020-22

• Won 2021 Heisman Trophy, only quarterback in Alabama history
• Won 2021 Maxwell Award
• Named AP Player of the Year 2021
• Won 2021 Davey O’Brien Award
• Won 2021 Manning Award
• Finalist for the AAU James E. Sullivan Award, which is presented annually to the most outstanding athlete at the collegiate or Olympic level in the United States
• Consensus All-American 2021; second-team All-American
• 2021 SEC Offensive Player of the Year
• 2021 All-SEC
• First-overall selection of 2023 NFL Draft
• Team captain 2021-22
• The only quarterback in Alabama history to throw for 3,000-plus yards in two seasons (also 2021)
• Finished second in program history for career passing yards (8,356) and passing touchdowns (80)
• Crimson Tide's all-time leader for five-touchdown games with five
• In 36 career games was 624 of 949 (65.8 percent), for 8,356 yards, 80 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Career passer rating of 165.0.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young on the cover of Sports Illustrated's 2023 draft preview
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young on the cover of Sports Illustrated's 2023 draft preview /

3. Mark Ingram II, RB, 2008-10

• Won 2009 Heisman Trophy
• 2009 SEC Offensive Player of the Year
• 2009 unanimous All-American
• 2009 All-SEC; 2010 second-team All-SEC
• First-round pick 2011 NFL Draft
• During the 2009 SEC Championship Game rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns, while also catching two passes for 76 receiving yards to combine for 189 all-purpose yards against Florida. While doing so surpassed Bobby Humphrey’s single-season rushing record for the Crimson Tide (1,471)
• Was named Offensive MVP of 2010 BCS National Championship Game after rushing for 116 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries
• For the 2009 season, Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns, and also had 334 receiving yards with three touchdowns
• Finished Crimson Tide career with 3,261 rushing yards in 41 games (24 starts), and had 42 rushing touchdowns. Also had 60 receptions for 670 yards and four more scores.

Mark Ingram II and the Alabama Crimson Tide defeat Texas at the Rose Bowl to claim the 2009 national championship
Mark Ingram II and the Alabama Crimson Tide defeat Texas at the Rose Bowl to claim the 2009 national championship /

4. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, 2017-19

• Won 2018 Maxwell Award
• 2018 Walter Camp Award
• Finished second for 2018 Heisman Trophy
• 2018 consensus All-American
• 2018 SEC Offensive Player of the Year
• 2018 All-SEC; 2019 second-team All-SEC
• 2017 second-team All-American
• 2018-19 Polynesian Award
• Fifth-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft
• Set NCAA career record for passing efficiency (199.4 rating)
• The Crimson Tide’s career touchdown responsibility leader with 96 (87 passing, nine rushing)
• Own school record for career passing touchdowns list with 87, 10 more than anyone else
• Third in Alabama annals for career passing yards with 7,442
• Team captain

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovaila on the cover of Sports Illustrated
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovaila on the cover of Sports Illustrated /

5. DeVonta Smith, WR, 2017-20

• Won 2020 Heisman Trophy
• Won 2020 Maxwell Award
• Won 2020 Walter Camp Award
• Named AP Player of the Year 2020
• Won 2020 Fred Biletnikoff Award
• Alabama's first recipient of the Paul Hornung Award, as the nation's most versatile player
• Unanimous All-American 2020; second-team All-American 2019
• 2020 SEC Offensive Player of the Year
• 2020 All-SEC; 2019 second-team All-SEC
• 10th-overall pick in 2021 NFL Draft
• Twice voted team captain
• Holds the SEC and Alabama career record for receiving touchdowns with 46, passing the previous mark of 31 held by Amari Cooper (2012-14) and Chris Doering of Florida (1992-95)
• The Alabama and SEC all-time receiving yards leader with 3,965,
• In shortened 2020 season due to the coronavirus, led the nation in receptions (117), receiving touchdowns (23) and receiving yards (1,856). The yards and 23 receiving touchdowns set Alabama single-season records, the catches were second.
• Ranked second nationally in receptions per game (9.0) and receiving yards per game (142.8). Smith also did so while playing an SEC-only schedule.
• Only receiver in SEC history with multiple career games totaling four or more receiving touchdowns.
• Holds Alabama for the most 200-plus yard receiving performances (five)
• Has Crimson Tide record for career receptions with 235.
• Returned 11 punts during senior season for 237 yards (21.5 average) and one touchdown.

Devonta Smith on the cover of Sports Illustrated's commemorative edition after Alabama won the 2020-21 national championship
Devonta Smith on the cover of Sports Illustrated's commemorative edition after Alabama won the 2020-21 national championship /

See also: 6-10: The Great Debate, Julio Jones vs. DeVonta Smith

Next up: The Saban 250 Cheat Sheet


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Christopher Walsh

CHRISTOPHER WALSH

Christopher Walsh is the founder and publisher of BamaCentral, which first published in 2018. He's covered the Crimson Tide since 2004, and is the author of 26 books including Decade of Dominance, 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Nick Saban vs. College Football, and Bama Dynasty: The Crimson Tide's Road to College Football Immortality. He's an eight-time honoree of Football Writers Association of America awards and three-time winner of the Herby Kirby Memorial Award, the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s highest writing honor for story of the year. In 2022, he was named one of the 50 Legends of the ASWA. Previous beats include the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. Originally from Minnesota and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, he currently resides in Tuscaloosa.