When Bleacher Report recently asked readers who will lead the University of Alabama in rushing this season, 60.9 percent voted for the backup, compared to just 33.9 for the incumbent.
On May 30, NFL.com listed the same reserve at No. 1 in an article titled: "Scariest players in college football."
Bovada has him at 25-to-1 odds of winning the Heisman Trophy this season.
All this for a player who touched the ball just 36 times as a collegiate rookie, Derrick Henry.
Yes, crimson Kool-Aid is being chugged regarding the sophomore running back—and with good reason. Anyone who watched the Sugar Bowl is well aware of his enormous potential.
What’s not to be impressed with? The driven Henry is a workout fiend who gets up and does push-ups in the middle of the night. At 6’3”, 238 pounds, the former 5-star recruit and Parade High School Player of the Year is bigger than most linebackers and has no qualms about trying to run them over.
But anyone overlooking T.J. Yeldon is making a huge mistake.
The junior was Alabama’s starter last year when he became the fifth running back in Crimson Tide lore to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, joining Johnny Musso (1970-71), Bobby Humphrey (1986-87), Shaun Alexander (1998-99) and Kenneth Darby (2004-05).
A former 5-star prospect himself, Yeldon spent a full season working behind Eddie Lacy before taking over in the backfield. He knows the offense, has the blocking schemes down and scored 26 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons, which is tied for ninth in Crimson Tide history.
Meanwhile, Henry was Yeldon’s primary backup for one game last season after things came together during the bowl practices. He had 100 rushing yards on eight carries with a touchdown, and turned his first career reception into a 61-yard score against Oklahoma, but what may have best demonstrated his improvement was a key block on a blitz.
Earlier last season Henry wouldn’t have made that play. Blocking was something he didn’t do much of in high school.
“We're encouraged by his progress and we think he's capable of making a tremendous contribution to our team in a lot of different ways," Saban said during the post-spring SEC coaches’ teleconference. "Now he's sort of comfortable in what is expected of him here, not only in running the ball, but running pass routes, catching the ball, pass protection, being a complete player at his position.
"He's much more confident and feels like he can make a tremendous contribution."
In addition to doing the necessary things that most fans don’t notice, and having a significant advantage in experience, Yeldon showed the difference between them during Alabama’s A-Day, the final scrimmage of spring.
Yeldon was the one to go 13 yards behind the right side on the first offensive snap. Henry’s first handoff resulted in no yards up the middle.
Yeldon had the game’s longest carry, 36 yards. Henry’s best was 8 yards.
Yeldon’s 95 rushing yards on 11 carries (8.6 average) landed him game MVP honors. He’s the first player in Crimson Tide history to win the Dixie Howell Memorial Award three times.
|Mark Ingram Jr.||143-728||271-1,658||158-875||NFL||572-3,261|
Compiled from Rolltide.com and sportsreference.com
Henry, playing on the same side, and behind the same linemen, had eight carries for 22 yards (2.8 average). Granted, with the scaled-down play-calling, coaches didn’t do much to get him the ball in space, but the same was true for Yeldon.
Both had one reception. Yeldon’s resulted in a 9-yard gain, while Henry was hit behind the line of scrimmage for a 2-yard loss.
Overall, Henry has tallied 382 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns for the Crimson Tide while Yeldon is sixth on Alabama’s all-time rushing list, having already surpassed Dennis Riddle (1995-97), Sherman Williams (1991-94), Johnny Davis (1975-77), and Lacy (2010-12).
All that is left for him are the five 3,000-yard running backs.
If Yeldon can stay healthy and maintain his 2013 game average of 102.9 rushing yards, he’ll join the 3,000 club during Alabama’s seventh game of the 2014 season, against Texas A&M. He could then move up a slot each week, surpassing Trent Richardson at Tennessee, Mark Ingram at LSU, Ken Darby vs. Mississippi State and Bobby Humphrey vs. Western Carolina.
The pace would put the record within reach against Auburn on Nov. 29, with one to three postseason games remaining.
Should any opponents overlook him, like the way a lot of fans are, he could get there even sooner.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.