In the winter of 2013, running back Derrick Henry enrolled early at the University of Alabama.
Henry arrived as Parade magazine's national player of the year after averaging a gargantuan 327.8 rushing yards per game as a Yulee High School senior in Yulee, Fla. He amassed at least 2,400 rushing yards all four seasons at Yulee and gained 510 yards in one game as a senior.
Yet for the all the physical attributes and statistics that accompanied Henry, there was also a humble and motivated aspect that Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban appreciated during those first few months in Tuscaloosa.
"One day he told me, 'Coach, all they ever did was just toss me the ball, and I ran with it,'" Saban recalled this week. "He said, 'So all this other stuff I need to learn about playing running back, like pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield and all those other things, I really need to learn.'
"And those are the areas that he has really improved on dramatically."
Now more complete as a 6-foot-3, 242-pound college junior, Henry quickly emerged as the Tide's top offensive threat during last Saturday's 35-17 thumping of Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. He ran for 147 yards and three touchdowns on just 13 carries, numbers that earned him the SEC's inaugural offensive player of the week award as well as national honors from the Maxwell Award organization and the Football Writers Association of America.
Henry had a 37-yard touchdown run at the 5:54 mark of the first quarter to open the scoring, and his 56-yard score with 11:42 remaining in the third quarter put the Tide in control at 21-7.
"I thought we played a pretty good game," Henry told reporters this week. "We came out trying to be physical and were able to put away our opponent, but there is still a lot we can improve on. We always want to run the ball effectively, and we were able to do that."
Henry averaged 11.3 yards per carry against the Badgers, and Alabama averaged 6.4 yards per rush overall. Backup tailback Kenyan Drake collected 77 yards on 10 carries, including a shifty 43-yard score with 8:02 remaining that gave the Tide their largest lead at 35-10.
Last Saturday was Drake's first game since the senior broke his leg during the fifth game a year ago at Ole Miss.
"I was excited for him, because it's been a long road," Henry said. "He's worked hard to get back to where he is now, and it was good to see him score a touchdown and play great in the game. That's my brother there."
Henry also was quick to express his excitement for quarterback Jake Coker, a fifth-year senior transfer who completed 15 of 21 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown.
"Jake did a good job," Henry said. "He had great poise, and he had great leadership. He was patient and played his game, and as the season goes on, he's going to get better and better."
In the summer of 2013, Henry was among a touted quartet of freshman tailbacks that included Alvin Kamara, Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny. Alabama also had T.J. Yeldon, Drake and Dee Hart on its well-stocked roster, but a relatively rapid dwindling occurred when Kamara, Jones, Tenpenny and Hart transferred out.
Yeldon chose to bypass his senior season and was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round of the NFL draft this year.
Henry showed considerable promise as a freshman in 2013, collecting 100-yard rushing games against Arkansas and Oklahoma, as well as a 61-yard scoring reception against the Sooners. He led the team a year ago with 990 rushing yards and averaged 5.8 per carry, notching a 20-carry, 141-yard performance against Missouri in the SEC title game and a 20-carry, 111-yard showing in a late-September rout of Florida.
Having yet to carry the ball more than 20 times in a game for the Tide, Henry not only has size and speed but relatively little wear and tear, thus making him more dangerous than ever.
"The guy was a fantastic player in high school," Saban said, "and he has been one of the hardest-working, best-attitude guys on our team. He's improved dramatically in a lot of areas, and he had a great game the other night.
"He could really be a workhorse for us, and we're just hopeful he can stay healthy and continue to improve."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.