The Gators are used to seeing Heisman Trophy caliber running backs, but Saturday might be their biggest challenge of the season.
Florida faced off with Leonard Fournette, who came into the game as the Heisman Trophy favorite and certainly didn’t hurt his stock that night, when they traveled to play LSU in October. A season-ending knee injury kept Nick Chubb off the field when Florida faced Georgia, but they were tested again last week with Florida State running back Dalvin Cook.
The bad news for the Florida defense is the first two tests haven’t gone well. Fournette ran for 180 yards and two touchdowns as the Gators lost 35-28 against LSU. Last week, Cook went for 183 yards and two touchdowns while the Seminoles cruised to a 27-2 win. Florida held Cook to 33 rushing yards on 13 carries through three quarters before he consistently broke big runs in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
Despite those two bad games, the Florida defense still comes into Saturday’s SEC Championship Game with the No. 7 rush defense in the country, allowing just 111.25 yards. But the unit knows it’s in for a stiff test on Saturday.
“I don’t know if fast-moving semi is a good visual,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said about Henry with a laugh. There was a movie one time about this train that was like out of control, going really fast and they had to stop it before it blew up the city. Something like that. This guy, he’s fun to watch and they use him really well. They’re going to find ways to get him to have a huge effect on the game.”
Henry is capable of being a workhorse for the entire Alabama offense. In the Crimson Tide’s 29-13 win over Auburn last weekend, the junior carried the ball 46 times while the offense totaled 26 pass attempts. When they’re in control of the score and want to dominate the clock, Henry has all the attributes to convert first downs and put the game away.
But he also has the size and speed to punish defenders in the open field and run away from them on the way to the end zone. His power is his best attribute with the ball in his hands, and it has helped Alabama put away multiple games this year.
“He’s a bigger back. He’s a power back. But we’ve played against Fournette. We’ve played against Cook. I mean, if we can play against them there’s no reason we can’t play against Derrick Henry. Everyone knows Derrick Henry is a great back, but I feel like we have a great defense. We have to stay focused on the whole week. It’s a challenge, but I feel like we’re going to accept the challenge and do good things Saturday.”
His power is especially dangerous once he reaches the second level or on the perimeter. When Henry is one-on-one with a defensive back, it usually doesn’t end well for the defense.
“It's not that fun,” Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III said about facing Henry in the open field. “When he has a full head of steam coming at you, he's a big back, he can make you miss or he can run you over. You've got to hold on and wait for the boys to get there, wait for the team to get there.”
Many of the Florida players know of Henry from high school. As a standout running back for Yulee (FL) High School, Henry broke the national career rushing record, which previously stood for 51 years, with 12,124 yards in his career. He added 153 touchdowns, good for fifth most ever.
Players at least heard about him before Henry enrolled at Alabama, but he has become a household name in college football this season.
“It’s fun to watch him play,” Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “When you’re watching, it’s fun. Not when you’re playing against him.”