TUSCALOOSA, Ala.— University of Alabama junior linebacker Reggie Ragland has an interesting way to describe a collision in the hole with sophomore running back Derrick Henry: “Peaceful.”
“We're coming in, we're going to thud each other real hard because right now we can't take each other down to the ground,” he answered. “But it's mean and peaceful, I can tell you that.”
Ragland was referring to Nick Saban’s practice policy of no tackling during practices, just thudding and not wrapping up unless it’s a scrimmage or live drill. Yet they can still be pretty violent, especially when the guy with the ball may be as big or bigger than the person trying to stop him.
“He's 6'4", 240 and runs like a 5'10" guy,” said Ragland, who is listed on the Crimson Tide’s spring roster as being 6’2”, 257 pounds. “So he's a big guy. A lot of people are scared to tackle him.”
Henry even wears a size 14 shoe, and yes, he could tell during the Sugar Bowl that some of the Oklahoma players wanted nothing to do with him during his breakout performance. While backing up T.J. Yeldon for the first time the then-true freshman tallied 100 rushing yards on eight carries, including a 43-yard touchdown, and scored again on his first reception, going 61 yards off a short completion.
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It made fans wonder why the Crimson Tide coaches hadn’t give him touches like that from the start of last season, but Henry concedes that he wasn’t ready. The consensus 5-star prospect who was named the 2012 national player of the year by MaxPreps, the Maxwell Club and Parade magazine believed that his success in high school would simply translate to the next level, only to quickly learn otherwise.
“During my first practice here, I was like 'Oh snap. Everybody's flying around,’” he said. “It was kind of crazy.”
The “snap” wasn’t merely from just one moment, rather, “Everybody. Linemen. Linemen moving fast. I was like 'Oh my God. Everybody moving fast.' Linebackers. Everybody was moving fast. I was like 'Good God.'”
After a while things started slowing down, but the early enrollee missed the second half of last spring due to a fractured fibula. When fall rolled around Henry was still making the adjustment, which showed during the season opener against Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome, where he struggled in pass protection and was quickly pulled.
At the end of the regular season, Henry had just 27 attempts for 282 yards and two touchdowns, but despite the 10.4 average per carry wasn’t a factor in the regular offense. That changed when Alabama went back to basics at the start of bowl practices, and the rookie no longer felt overwhelmed.
“Just running the ball better and being more comfortable, playing fast, blitz pickup,” he said. “Blitz pickup was one of my biggest struggles because in high school you don't really have to pick up the blitz because we ran the ball most of the time.”
It was right around Christmas, before the Crimson Tide headed to New Orleans, that things began to really click.
Henry was subsequently promoted to second string and instead of getting mop-up duty entered the Sugar Bowl in the first quarter. Even though the Sooners eventually won 45-31, the 161 all-purpose yards led all players and he attracted the most postgame buzz.
“No, it didn’t surprise me,” said Jalston Fowler, who has gone from strictly being a running back to more of a fullback and tight end. “He worked his butt off. The kid is always working. I mean always. Whether he’s getting extra in or lifting weights, he’s doing something extra because he wants to be great."
“He’s running a lot harder, trying to run people over out there. He’s a big bull out there.”
With a massive amount of momentum on his side Henry aims to build on that performance and Saban has only offered praise when asked about him by reporters this spring, a surefire indicator that he’s poised to contribute more. However, the coach also made a point to say that Yeldon and junior Kenyan Drake have been “outstanding” as well.
Yeldon is just the fifth player in Alabama history to have multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons, while Drake was second in team rushing last year with 694 yards on 92 carries and is just 25 short of 1,000 career yards.
That each of the three has a very different style as a running back, with Drake showing the best burst and Henry a freakish combination of power and speed, gives Lane Kiffin a nasty three-pronged attack at the position. They can all catch well too, as does Fowler, gives the new offensive coordinator even more options in play-calling and chances to get them the ball in space or with just one man on them.
“It humbled me,” Henry said about his initial season. “Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it. You have to take time. This is college football so it's more technique. You have to put more effort into by watching film and really paying attention to the little things like (running backs coach Burton) Burns and Coach Saban preach. That's what I had to do to be able to get on the field and that's what I did.”
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.