TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to first impressions, it’s difficult to say who made a bigger one on the field last season between Derrick Henry or O.J. Howard.
Both had signature plays as true freshmen. The running back’s 61-yard catch-and-bulldoze touchdown reception in the Sugar Bowl gave the Crimson Tide a late chance against Oklahoma, while LSU fans are still talking about how the tight end took a slant pass and outraced everyone in the secondary to a 51-yard touchdown.
Off the field, though, it was no contest.
“He's just a freak,” Howard said last year after the two reported to the Capstone as early enrollees. “He's my roommate, and he scares me sometimes just walking around.
“He's a guy who works really hard. He gets up at night and does push-ups.”
If you’ve ever seen the 6’3”, 238-pound Henry minus the pads it’s easy to believe. The word “fit” seems like too much of an understatement.
“That's just what I do,” Henry said while shrugging it off. “I don't know why. Just a habit.”
Although the H&H club combined to gain “just” 712 offensive yards as rookies last year, the two also averaged 14.24 yards every time they touched the ball. That included rushing yards, as Henry went 10.9 per carry, with the longest gain his 80-yard touchdown run against Arkansas.
"Oh, I'm one of Derrick's biggest fans," running back Kenyan Drake said about the last-minute play in which Henry hit the outside corner and was gone. He didn’t know at the time that a couple of months later the player who broke the national high school career rushing record would take his place as T.J. Yeldon’s backup during bowl practices.
That’s when things started really coming together for Henry, as it often does for newcomers with the Crimson Tide after the completion of their first regular season. Before Nick Saban has the team turn its attention to the final opponent he has everyone sort of restart from scratch, going over the same things that the team worked on at the beginning of the season.
His thinking is that the players may have learned what to do the first time around, but better comprehend what’s expected when they revisit it.
Defensive schemes take a while not just to learn, but to get down to the point where everything is second nature. Offenses are the same way too, as is blocking, which is something Henry had really never done before.
The more things become familiar, the more coaches can add, like with Howard lining up wide on the play he scored against LSU. Most opponents don’t have a linebacker who can match up against such a big, fast tight end, and as he gets stronger defensive backs will be even more danger of getting run over.
“In high school I played receiver a lot, so I'm pretty comfortable playing out wide,” Howard said. “It's easy for me to get a release sometimes outside.”
Who knows where new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin might line up either of them this fall, because both are a one-on-one nightmare. Start putting them on the field together, say with prolific wide receiver Amari Cooper, and it’s pick your poison.
Only now they’re getting more comfortable with the college game.
Junior linebacker Reggie Ragland told reporters this spring that he could already tell defenders don’t want to try tackling the big running back. Meanwhile, Howard, who is three inches taller, is playing a position that is in high demand. Last season in the National Football League 32 tight ends were targeted by their quarterbacks for passes at least 50 times.
“Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring,” Saban said. “He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it. Very conscientious guy. He sets a great example. Physical in the way he plays. Very conscientious and pays attention to detail.
“O.J. is a very talented guy. I think he needs to continue to improve in some of those areas because he’s a great pass-receiver, but we continue to work with him and try to improve him as a blocker and get him to pay attention to detail and the importance of that part of the game as well.”
The amazing thing is that neither is expected to carry the offensive load at his respective position this season.
Junior T.J. Yeldon is the established starter at running back and on pace to become the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading rusher. Coaches also have Drake as a speed option when they want someone to burst through a hole, so Alabama can attack defenses in a multitude of ways out of the backfield.
At tight end, the 6’7’’ Brian Vogler appears to have added to his upper-body strength for his senior year. He’s already played in 35 career games, and if a defense forgets about him in coverage it’s an easy first down.
There’s also something to be said about a little friendly rivalry between Henry and Howard as they strive to fulfill their enormous potential. When Alabama signed a whooping six 5-star recruits in 2013, wide receiver Robert Foster, who ended up redshirting, was the only other offensive player among them (Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and A’Shawn Robinson were the others).
In its overall rankings for the Class of 2013, 247Sports listed Henry as the 12th-best player in the nation and Howard 19th. Watching them continually try to one-up one another could be nothing short of special.
“We always push each other, what we both need to work on to get better,” Howard said. “We both had our flashes, but this year we can become an all-around player at both our positions and be consistent with our play.”
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.