Hey, remember Derrick Henry, the Alabama tailback? One of the interesting storylines of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game set for Monday night is that it seems no one is talking about Henry, the 6-3, 242-pound Crimson Tide running back.
Alabama (13-1 and ranked second in the nation) and Clemson (14-0 and the nation’s top-ranked team) will be playing for the national championship at the University of Phoenix Stadium beginning at 7:30 p.m. CST Monday. ESPN will televise the game.
And while there is much discussion of the quarterbacks in the game, Jacob Coker for Alabama and Deshaun Watson for Clemson, and much talk about the defenses, and really a lot of talk about the coaches, Nick Saban for Bama and former Alabama player and assistant coach Dabo Swinney for the Tigers, we’re not hearing as much as we might expect about the Tide’s record-setting tailback, Derrick Henry.
Henry hasn’t gone away. When the Tide and Tigers square off Monday night, the junior will come into the game as the all-time leading single season rusher in the Southeastern Conference. He has set records for rushing yards, touchdowns, and games with over 200 yards rushing. Henry has 359 carries for 2,061 yards (5.7 yards per carry and 147.2 yards per game), and an SEC record 25 touchdowns.
Shaq Lawson, the 6-3, 275-pound junior All-America defensive end for Clemson, did mention Henry briefly as the CFP media days event Saturday. “He’s the Heisman Trophy winner,” Lawson said. “That’s good.” Henry is also 2015 winner of the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back, and was the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp player of the year.
Lawson, who suffered a knee injury in Clemson’s semifinal win over Oklahoma, is expected to be good to go against Alabama. He knows the game plan.
“Stopping him,” he said of Henry, “is where it starts.”
Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, said, “You mean No. 2? Yeah, he shows up occassionally (in the game plan).
“He’s a terrific talent, a great physical presence. He’s what the game is football is all about when you talk about physical and mental toughness. All great football teams on either side of the ball, I think, a common denominator is a physical presence. That can be a physical defense, which they certainly possess.
“That physical presence is where they can impose their will on you when the game is on the line. Alabama has won a bunch of games through the years. I’m not sure they’ve had another guy like him, but he’s really, really special. He’s so different from what you see from week to week. We haven’t seen anyone like him.
“With his size, he’s built like a defensive end, but he runs like a Porsche. He’s a great player. A great player.”
Phil Savage, analyst on the Alabama radio network, executive director of Senior Bowl, and college football analyst on Sirius/XM radio, said that the seeming disrespect may be partly that Henry is so-called “Yesterday’s news.”
“Because of last week against Michigan State, he goes 20 carries for 75 yards, and the next day Christian McCaffrey blows up with 368 total yards. And Deshaun Watson had a big game in leading Clemson to a semifinal win over Oklahoma. But the truth of it is, the way to beat Michigan State was on the edges and on the perimeter. I said on the broadcast, ‘This is not a Derrick Henry game.’ But I think this game against Clemson will be because Bama has got to win between the hashmarks. They don’t have the advantages they had last week on the outside. I think we’re going to find out a lot about the Heisman Trophy winner Monday night.”
Burton Burns, who coaches Henry (and also coached Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and who also coached at Clemson before joining the Bama staff in Coach Nick Saban’s first year, said, “Henry is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever coached. His body type is unique. Coming out of high school, some might have thought he would be a defensive player. He’s tall and big, but the thing he does best is how hard he works. You want forward momentum and he’s conscious of that, he works at it, and that’s the way he plays.”
Burns said that Henry has had to be mentally tough as well as physically talented in facing defenses designed to stop him. “He plays the game every day,” Burns said. Stacked defenses “are part of the game, and one of his accomplishments is playing through it. It’s one of the expectations he has to prepare for.”
The defense used by Michigan State in the Spartans’ 38-0 loss to Bama in the Cotton Bowl was set up to keep Henry from having a big game. “Yes, that’s what they did,” Henry said Saturday. “It didn’t surprise me. Kenyan Drake did a great job of making plays, our receivers did a great job of making plays, and the protection was good. I knew the passing game would work, because Jake (Coker) is a great player. We have a lot of guys who can make plays.
“It was no shock to me.”
And if Clemson has the same plan as Michigan State, Henry said, “I just hope I can help my team out.”