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Derrick Henry Deserves to Be Lead Running Back in Nick Saban's System

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Derrick Henry Deserves to Be Lead Running Back in Nick Saban's System
John Bazemore/Associated Press

Alabama clearly has an embarrassment of riches at running back, with Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon all set to dish out plenty of punishment to college defenses in 2014. The pair combined for 239 yards and three touchdowns in the Crimson Tide's 33-23 victory over West Virginia University on Saturday.

Head coach Nick Saban always seems to have two exemplary running backs under his command to take turns mowing down opposing defenses. It's a strategy that has brought Alabama three national titles since 2009.

Alabama Running Backs, 2009-2013
Season Running Backs Combined Yards Combined Rushing Touchdowns
2009 Mark Ingram/Trent Richardson 2,409 25
2010 Mark Ingram/Trent Richardson 1,575 19
2011 Trent Richardson/Eddie Lacy 2,353 28
2012 Eddie Lacy/T.J. Yeldon 2,430 29
2013 T.J. Yeldon/Kenyan Drake 1,929 22

Sports-Reference.com

Based on the evidence from the victory over West Virginia, this trend is set to continue. It's a fine strategy that gives offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin plenty to work with, but the scheme would be at its best with the 6'3", 241-pound Henry, not Yeldon, in the lead role. 

John Bazemore/Associated Press

This is to take nothing away from the extraordinary ability of running back T.J. Yeldon, but when you have a revolutionary combination of size and speed at running back, it's in the best interest of the team to make sure that force of nature is on the field as often as possible. Yeldon will still get his carries, but Henry should get the lion's share.

Henry has apparently already displaced Kenyan Drake, who tallied 694 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns in 2013 and yet carried the ball just three times for seven yards against West Virginia.

Jacksonville Jaguars radio play-by-play man Frank Frangie believes Henry is Alabama's best back:

It is still tempting to take the consistency of Yeldon, who carried the ball 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns against West Virginia, while continuing to utilize Henry as a freakish change-of-pace weapon—similar to the way UCLA used linebacker Myles Jack as a part-time halfback last season.

However, Henry doesn't have defensive responsibilities to worry about. He could easily be the throwback, workhorse rusher who can make mincemeat of college defenses behind a behemoth Crimson Tide offensive line. In fact, he already dresses the part of an old-school player, via Bleacher Report's own Barrett Sallee:

When—okay, if—Alabama fans think back to the disappointing Sugar Bowl defeat to Oklahoma last year, Henry is likely the only part of the contest they recall with any true fondness.

The then-freshman made a statement, putting up 161 yards of offense on just nine touches. It became increasingly clear he is a dynamic back just waiting to be unleashed.

Henry has the ability to make game-breaking plays at any moment with his athleticism, but those opportunities are mitigated if he isn't on the field enough. Henry needs to be in the game more often to best maximize his game-altering potential.

He also could be useful if Alabama speeds up its normally plodding offense. CBS Sports' Jeremy Fowler noted that Saban sped up the team's offense in order to suit the needs of quarterback Blake Sims, a fifth-year senior making his first start for the Crimson Tide:

But then Saban had another thought. He told Kiffin to dial up a faster pace. 

Sims (24-of-33 for 250 yards and an interception) was at his best when the Tide offense fired off six plays in 1:27 to end the half, an average of 14.5 seconds per play, twice the per-play pace of the previous drive. 

During that span, Sims completed all four of his passes for 28 yards and ran for another 21 to set up a 41-yard Adam Griffith field goal.

If Alabama continues to utilize hurry-up packages, it could limit substitution opportunities in the backfield. Henry is the best fit for these situations with his ability to make big plays. If he's designated as the lead back, the Crimson Tide are more likely to have him on the field in these pivotal, fast-paced situations.

He showed off his ability to scamper down the sideline for big gains against West Virginia:

Fox Sports Southwest's David Ubben watched Henry play and questioned the football legality of his presence on the gridiron:

The ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is a non-factor in this contest. Henry had that 61-yard touchdown catch in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, but that was his first of the season. Yeldon tallied just 20 receptions in 2013, and had all of one catch for a single yard against the Mountaineers on Saturday.

John Bazemore/Associated Press
T.J. Yeldon

Clearly, Henry would do well to refine this aspect of his game, but he could get into the flow of things if he sees more snaps. Yeldon hasn't set the bar very high in this aspect of the game, which should keep the opportunities coming for Henry as a possible decoy on obvious passing downs.

He also spoke about making a concerted effort to improve as a pass-blocker this offseason.

"I’ve just really been focusing in the meetings and in practice, making sure I’m paying attention to [pass blocking and picking up the blitz] because that’s really big in college," said Henry, via ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough. "There are a lot of defenses, different defenses, so you’ve got to know the blitzes if you want to play."

Who should get more carries in 2014?

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It would be tough to take away Yeldon's status as the top back at Alabama, but as the season wears on the Crimson Tide can use a rusher who will dish out plenty of punishment to tired defenses that may be quick to tip back on their heels with a rampaging rusher heading straight toward them.

Henry narrowly edges out Yeldon in this regard, although both backs will need plenty of carries for Alabama to pull out victories without a bona fide star—or even starter, for that matter—at quarterback.

Blake Sims was serviceable against West Virginia, and transfer signal-caller Jacob Coker is lurking in the background. But neither of those players will light up SEC defenses. That is a task designed specifically for Yeldon and Henry, but best left to the latter player.

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