One thing that marred the performances of both Yeldon and Drake, however, has been that both have had fumbles at critical times. A third member of that tailback troika, though, is known only for the big plays he provided, particularly at the end of last season.
Derrick Henry didn’t burst onto the scene at Alabama as a freshman last year, but the all-time leading rusher in United State high school history certainly made a mark, and he made it with good ball security.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban talked about ball security following the Crimson Tide’s Thursday practice.
Asked if Alabama coaches talked to the players about fumbles, Saban said, “I think it's something that you drill in practice, and I think, because you practice so much against each other, the better your defense is at finishing and trying to create turnovers, the more ball awareness and ball security you develop on offense.
“But we do do the old-fashioned gauntlet drills, and every day in practice we keep [statistics on] ball disruption, turnovers, caused turnovers, caused fumbles, recovered fumbles, both sides of the ball so every player is aware of how he's taking care of the ball.”
Saban noted that Alabama had done very well on ball security until late last season. Alabama lost two fumbles, one for a touchdown, in a 20-7 win over Mississippi State. The Tide was not so fortunate against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, losing three fumbles, two that led to touchdowns in a 45-31 loss by Bama.
“It was very, very costly in the bowl game,” Saban said.
“We do a big presentation on every time we turn the ball over, the value is between three and five points. That's the net outcome of a turnover. It's also the outcome when we get one. It's important that the defensive players are trying to get them and that the offensive players take care of the ball.
Henry, a 6-3, 241-pound upcoming sophomore from Yulee, Fla., came to Tuscaloosa with eye-popping statistics. He didn’t disappoint as he averaged 10.9 yards per carry in his first college season. Henry, who was third team until late in the year when he passed Drake on the depth chart, had 35 rushes for 382 yards and three touchdowns, including one on an 8-yard run against Arkansas. He also caught one pass, a 61-yard touchdown play against Oklahoma.
He was the National High School Player of the Year in 2012 as he rushed for 4,261 yards to become the all-time high school career rusher with 12,124 ground yards. He had 55 rushing touchdowns as a senior and 153 in his career.
Henry said that Alabama’s fall football camp had included plenty of work on ball security. “That’s the main thing a running back is supposed to do,” he said. “Hold the ball high and tight. We work on ball security a lot so we don’t have fumbles and create turnovers. Ball security is very important to us.”
Although Henry had a fine freshman season and has been mentioned as one of the nation’s top running backs (even as he backs up Yeldon and fights with Drake for playing time), he said he needs to improve on “everything.
“I want to become a complete back -- running, pass blocking, route running.”
He said that he thinks his greatest improvement in his first season has come as a pass blocker, “picking up the blitz.” (Of course, in high school his Job One was to run the ball and the quarterback’s job was to give it to Henry.)
He said blitz protection “was something I really struggled with last year.”
He said he has worked on improving by “focusing in the meetings and in practices.
“There are a lot of defenses, different defenses, so you’ve got to know the blitzes if you want to play.”
He said, “I feel like I’ve still got a lot to prove. I don’t see I’ve done anything that makes me feel like I’ve arrived or anything like that. I let my play speak for itself. I just feel like I still got a lot more to prove.”
Henry said things are “more comfortable” for him as he prepares for his second Bama season. A year ago, he said, “I was more nervous, instead of just relaxing and paying attention and just calming down, letting it all come to me. Now, I’m just comfortable, I feel good, I know what I’m doing. I’m more experienced, so when I’m out there I’m playing fast and doing what I’m supposed to do.”