Every one of Derrick Henry’s returns to Jacksonville, Fla., now spark a predictable flood of flashback stories from media members.
It’s hard to resist, given some of the otherworldly numbers Henry racked up for Yulee High just outside of Jacksonville: In his senior year alone, he topped 500 yards in one game, surpassed 400 yards four times and broke the 300-yard mark on eight different occasions.
What’s interesting about some of those old high-school film clips, though, is that Henry – despite the fact he was nearly as large as he is now – wasn’t necessarily running over everyone in sight. He did when he had to, of course, but the long-legged Henry was so fast that he just blew past the majority of the little guys trying to catch him.
In recent years, Henry has treated his “hometown” NFL team – the Jacksonville Jaguars – much the same way he did those poor high-school kids back in the day. Henry would bully and stiff-arm Jaguars defenders aside if necessary.
He broke their will so often that in the closing portions of many of those games, Henry sailed through the line untouched. A remarkable number of hesitant Jacksonville tacklers took what looked to be suspiciously bad angles or failed to get off their blocks.
That’s why Henry’s totals in his last five games against the Jaguars – prior to Sunday – were head-spinning on an NFL level: 104 carries for 740 yards (7.1-yard average) and nine touchdowns.
Perhaps that was the reason Henry seemed to be in an especially good mood when he met with Nashville media in the days leading up to Sunday’s contest, even repping Yulee High at the podium by wearing a green-and-gold jersey emblazoned with the team’s “Hornets” logo.
But if Jacksonville’s defense occasionally had appeared guilty of rolling out a red carpet for the pride of Jacksonville in the past, Sunday’s game represented a much more challenging task.
The Titans sent Henry barreling into the Jacksonville defense 11 times in the first half, and watched him get hammered time and again. He wound up with a grand total of 31 yards over the first 30 minutes, with a long gain of six yards. No highlight-reel jaunts around end and down the sideline, no 99-yard touchdown scampers with defensive backs struggling to get close enough to tackle him.
Sure, the Titans led 24-13 at halftime, but there had been no parting of the seas as Henry approached the Jacksonville defense.
“In past experiences, something about Jacksonville … there wasn’t as much fight if the game got a little separated,” tackle Taylor Lewan told media in Jacksonville afterward. “Those guys fought the entire game. They played hard the entire game. Their defense played extremely hard.”
When Henry battered his way to 42 yards on the first drive of the third quarter – ending the possession with back-to-back carries of 13 and nine yards (for a touchdown) – it looked like the floodgates might open. The Titans had stretched their lead to 31-13 at that poin. The Jacksonville humidity wasn’t going anywhere. And Henry appeared to be gaining steam.
But it didn’t quite happen that way. Not like we’ve seen in the past.
On Henry’s next four carries, he gained one, minus-two, zero and four yards. Credit the Jaguars with making him earn everything he got, stuffing the box with eight or more defenders on 55 percent of the King’s 29 carries, per the league’s Next Gen Stats.
“That’s a lot how it goes, especially in this league, this division,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “Teams aren’t going to wilt on their own. You’re going to have to continue to push and pound them until you get some breaks.”
Which is just what Henry did early in the fourth quarter.
With the offense backed up at its own 8-yard line, and facing a second-and-6, Henry not only broke through the line, but dropped his shoulder at the end of the run. He thumped into and over Jacksonville safety Andrew Wingard after a gain of 15 yards, his longest carry of the afternoon.
It was an Eddie George kind of run on an Eddie George kind of afternoon for Henry, who wound up with 29 carries for 130 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per run. It was also an Eddie George style we’ve seen a little more often from Henry this season. As if his deadly stiff arm wasn’t an effective enough weapon on his own, Henry has been lowering his considerable frame on unsuspecting defenders from time to time.
“I think it is me just trying to finish runs,” Henry said earlier in the week. “You kind of have to switch it up a little bit. Everyone is expecting the stiff arm, so you lower your shoulder and maybe you push a little bit more forward and get some more out of that play. I’m trying to switch it up as much as I can because everybody is ready to break the stiff arm down.”
Getting lower than defenders’ pad level isn’t the easiest thing to do when – at 6-foot-3 -- you’re taller than plenty of them.
“It can get a little skinny in there, especially when (defenders) are knifing in,” Henry said. “I can only bend so much between the lines. I try to get as low as I can to move the pile forward.”
In any event, Henry just kept banging away, carrying seven more times for 42 yards – and yet another touchdown -- after dropping that shoulder on Wingard.
Incredible numbers? Not necessarily. Not for Henry anyway, given the outrageous standards he’s set for himself.
But Henry’s afternoon was a lot like the Titans’ overall in their 37-19 victory over Jacksonville. There weren’t a lot of style points handed out in what turned out to be a smashmouth battle between AFC South rivals. Who really cares, though, when the product is a bounce-back division victory on the road?
On his way off the field, Henry spotted some TV cameras and strolled by for a quick cameo before entering the locker room.
“It wasn’t pretty,” he said with a smile. “But it was beautiful. That’s all that matters.”
As he spoke, a teammate behind Henry placed an imaginary crown on top of his head.
Sure enough, he was Homecoming King once more.