Alabama Football: Realistic Expectations for Derrick Henry in 2014

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Alabama Football: Realistic Expectations for Derrick Henry in 2014
Butch Dill/Associated Press

Have you heard the one about Derrick Henry?

Superman wears Derrick Henry pajamas to bed. The Boogeyman checks under his bed for Derrick Henry before he goes to sleep at night.

In many Alabama circles, the rising sophomore running back from Yulee, Florida, has already risen to legend status after his Sugar Bowl performance that included this now-famous stat line: eight carries, 100 yards, one touchdown, one catch, 63 yards, one touchdown.

The 6’3”, 248-pound Henry came in with deserved hype, using his linebacker frame and wide receiver speed to break the all-time high school career rushing record. And he made the most of his first significant playing time against Oklahoma to put on a show, although it turned out to be too little too late in a 45-31 loss to end the season.

Alabama coach Nick Saban didn’t hold back in praise of Henry, either, this offseason, using words like “fabulous” and “outstanding” to describe his performance. You can even bet on Henry to win the Heisman, with Henry favored over names like South Carolina running back Mike Davis and Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook.

It’s easy to see why fans and pundits alike have high hopes for Henry in 2014. Still, he’s not even the No. 1 running back on the team (that would be T.J. Yeldon, a 1,000-yard rusher in his first two seasons who’s on track to break Alabama’s career rushing record), and it remains to be seen if he can handle a heavy load week in and week out in the SEC.

So where can we realistically project Henry for the 2014 season?

A good place to start is to look at Alabama’s running back history under Saban. He’s typically relied on a two-running back system, and that doesn’t figure to change with Yeldon as the starter and Henry the presumed No. 2.

Let’s look at the last five years, starting with 2009, Alabama’s first championship year under Saban.

Alabama running backs under Saban since 2009
Year RB1 RB2 RB1 Yards/TDs RB2 Yards/TDs
2009 Mark Ingram Trent Richardson 1,658/17 749/8
2010 Mark Ingram Trent Richardson 875/13 700/6
2011 Trent Richardson Eddie Lacy 1,679/21 674/7
2012 Eddie Lacy T.J. Yeldon 1,322/17 1,108/12
2013 T.J. Yeldon Kenyan Drake 1,235/14 694/8

cfbstats.com

A quick glance at the numbers tells you that Alabama’s No. 2 running back has averaged 785 yards per year over the last five seasons and around eight touchdowns. Not all running back situations, though, are created equal, so we have to take some other factors into account when trying to come up with a 2014 projection.

Alabama will be breaking in a new quarterback, so it stands to reason that its rushing totals will be a little higher than normal, like they were in 2009 and 2011. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin praised Henry in a rare speaking engagement, according to al.com’s Mike Herndon.

“Finishing his true freshman year at 245 pounds, running 4.4," Kiffin said. "That was really easy to come in and see that it'd be good to give him the ball."

Dave Martin/Associated Press

It’s unclear how evenly or unevenly the load will be split between Yeldon and Henry. Yeldon could see a slightly decreased workload, having already gotten nearly 400 carries in his college career and the NFL likely in front of him following the season. He could, though, be leaned on as the veteran option in an offense with a new signal-caller.

Saban and players have talked up a “three-headed monster” running back system, with Yeldon, Henry and junior Kenyan Drake bringing different skill sets to the table.

Kiffin said as much, per Herndon: "As you guys know extremely well, I think the offense is led by the tailbacks. ... There probably aren't three more talented tailbacks in the NFL on a roster than we're fortunate to be able to work with at Alabama."

But Drake, who was the No. 2 last year, saw off-field troubles and Henry’s bowl practice and subsequent performance push him back down the depth chart. He was No. 3 through the spring but is now suspended following his arrest. Henry, meanwhile, has by all accounts continued to do the right things and stay in Saban’s good graces.

So while Henry should have a solid season, he’ll likely have a hard time living up to the enormous expectations placed on him by those who expect him to put up the kind of numbers he did against Oklahoma on a regular basis.

He could approach the 1,000-yard mark, though that’s happened just once for a No. 2 running back at Alabama under Saban. But he should land around the 700-900 range with a productive season.

A breakout year, though, and the sky's the limit for someone with Henry’s ability. He could just make his legend status a reality.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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