Derrick Henry won the Heisman, and while he’s a special talent, he was in the right situation to pull off the epic season.
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Derrick Henry came into an elite program as an elite prospect with elite expectations, and now he’s Alabama’s second Heisman winner and the signature player of the 2015 regular season.
Yeah, Henry is a superstar talent, but he’s also part of a machine set up perfectly to turn that talent into a college football immortal.
Alabama came up with yet another phenomenal recruiting class in 2013, finishing fourth in the final Scout.com rankings highlighted by the foundation of the current stellar defensive line – A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen – along several other prospects who turned into key parts of the 2015 puzzle, but it was the haul of running backs that got most of the attention.
Bama was on a special run of tremendous running back production under Nick Saban, with Glen Coffee running for 1,383 yards and ten scores in 2008, Mark Ingram winning the 2009 Heisman after running for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns, Trent Richardson roaring for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2011, Eddie Lacy rumbling for 1,322 yards and 17 scores in 2012, and T.J. Yeldon coming up with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, topping out with 1,235 yards and 14 scores in 2013.
The elite offensive line had a lot to do with the rushing production, but having a string of NFL-caliber talents in the backfield helped a wee bit, too.
So throughout the 2012-2013 recruiting process it became an easy sell for the Crimson Tide to get superstar prospects to come try to be the Next Back Up.
Atlee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones committed early. They would’ve been the stars for just about anyone else’s recruiting class, and Alvin Kamara was the National Signing Day story by committing out of Georgia, even though there were already great backs coming in. But it was a 6-3, 241-pound linebacker-sized runner out of Yulee, Florida, who stood out among the pack.
It wasn’t just that Henry was really, really big for a running back, but he was surprisingly nimble and quick. The feet were there, the cutback ability and balance were already elite, and he had enough speed for his size to be a bit of a home run hitter once he got through the line.
And the production was off the charts.
As if three straight 2,000-yard seasons in high school weren’t enough – running for 7,721 yards and 98 touchdowns before his senior year – his final campaign took on mythological proportions running for 4,261 yards and 55 touchdowns. So it’s no wonder that on a 2013 team with Yeldon and Kenyan Drake as the stars, it was Henry who had everyone talking after the season with his 100-yard, one score day on eight carries in the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
Underused a wee bit as a sophomore, he still ran for 990 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he was just getting warmed up for his 2015 season for the ages.
For team with concerns about its offensive consistency, and after the loss of Amari Cooper to the NFL, the Crimson Tide needed a steady star to rely on to make everything else work. Don’t screw up, rely on one of the best defenses in college football, and drop the hammer in the fourth quarter to put it away.
Wisconsin finished the season fourth in the nation against the run. Henry came up with 147 yards and three touchdowns on just 13 carries in the opener against the Badgers.
Ole Miss finished 26th in the nation against the run, but Henry ran for 127 yard and a touchdown in the loss.
Georgia allowed fewer than four yards per carry on the season. Henry averaged 5.7 on his 148-yard day in the win.
But it wasn’t until LSU came to Tuscaloosa that the Heisman campaign truly kicked off.
Leonard Fournette was all but handed the award, but the Alabama run defense that finished No. 1 put an end to that. Meanwhile, Henry took away the game, LSU’s season, and almost Les Miles’ job with a thundering 210-yard, three score day on 38 carries. If that was the signature day in Henry’s Heisman run, it was also a sign of things to come.
Henry might not have been as flashy as Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, as versatile as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, or as good an all-around runner as Fournette, but he became Mariano Rivera. He was the closer.
The Alabama offense struggled a bit against Auburn, but it didn’t matter late as Henry finished with 46 carries for 271 yards and a score to seal up the SEC West. One week later against a Florida defense that finished tenth in the nation, Henry had 44 more carries in him to take the Tide into the College Football Playoff.
And now he’s a legend, coming just 14 yards shy of the 2,000-yard mark with 23 touchdowns and 5.86 tough yards per carry.
It might be Saban’s program, and Alabama might be the program set up to create the right situation, but it was Henry who got it done.