Nick Saban knew what he was getting in Derrick Henry, a 6-3, 240-pound tailback from Yulee, Fla. He was getting the National High School Player of the Year and the most prolific rusher in high school history. Henry broke the 51-=year old national prep record for rushing yards with 12,124, after he rushed for 4,261 yards as a senior at Yulee High. He had 153 career rushing touchdowns, including 55 as a senior.
For the obvious reason that he was most of the offense, he had not been a blocker. But that changed when he arrived at Alabama. Tailbacks are supposed to do more than run the football. In fact, they have more to do than run and block. They have to run and pass block and carry out fakes and make pass receptions. But blocking was probably first priority for Henry to add to his skills.
"That was a big transition,” Henry said this week as Alabama got into full gear in spring practice. “I feel like the older you are and more you play football you learn a lot more about blocking technique.
“That's big here. Coach really emphasizes that we have to block, like, a lot and I feel like I've gotten better. Just to the younger guys, I emphasize to them that blocking is a big deal and in college football, you've got to learn how to block to be able to play."
Not that Henry’s running skills have been overlooked. Even though he was the back-up to T.J. Yeldon last year, Henry was Bama’s top rusher with 172 carries (about 12 per game) for 990 yards, 5.8 yards per carry. For his career the upcoming junior has 207 carries for 1,372 yards (6.6 per carry) and 14 touchdowns.
Henry also has been effective in his occasional opportunities as a receiver. He has 6 receptions for 220 yards (36.7 yards per reception) and three touchdowns.
Saban said that Henry is not one to rest on his laurels.
“I think Derrick Henry has improved in all aspects of the game where he doesn’t have the ball – which includes blocking, which includes being a better receiver, understanding pass protections, when you need to get out, when you can’t,” Saban said.
“I love Derrick Henry. He's one of the hardest workers on our team. If you were going to give a most valuable player in the offseason program for just finishing, running hard, winning every race, finishing the drill, he'd have probably got it or been in the top three at least. I think that he has a real burning desire to be a really really good player and works really hard at it.
“What we try to do with guys like that is try to make sure their anxiety is not something that affects them because they want to do so badly that sometimes they get anxious about it, get frustrated about it and we just want to be positive with them and get them to focus on what they're doing right now and don't get too result-oriented or get frustrated.
“It's almost like a basketball player that's supposed to be a great scorer and he only has two points at halftime and he's pulling his hair out. You really don't want that. Maybe he'll score 24 in the next half. But you've got to just focus on what you're doing right now, knowing that if you do it right, you're going to have success and don't worry about that.
“Worrying is like praying for what you don't want to happen. We don't want guys to do that.”
Henry didn’t seem to be surprised at Saban’s praise of the off-season performance. “I accept that role as being a leader,” he said. “I want to make everybody better around me and get them to push themselves, because I’m going to give it my all every time I’m out there and try to make the team better.
“I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to be a leader. When I go out there, I’ve got to work and be about what I say I’m going to do.”
Henry also said that early spring practice work “has been good. It’s been fun. It’s a learning process, trying to get better for down the road.”
Henry said he takes seriously the role of leader of younger players. “When I first got here, I tried to learn from older guys and watch film and take coaching,” he said. “The thing I tell these guys is to come out and try to get better every day. If they have questions, ask the older guys and we’ll try to help them. We want them to get on the field.”
One of the stories of the spring is Alabama looking at formations in which both Henry and speedy tailback Kenyan Drake are on the field together. Henry sees the advantage in that.
"Kenyan's a great receiver out of the backfield,” Henry said. “Me in the backfield and him at receiver, you really wouldn't know what's coming or who's getting the ball. Kenyan has great hands, and I try to do a little bit out of the backfield, too. But I just think that's great to have us both out there trying to make a play for the team."