The Epic College Football Legacy of Alabama Running Back Derrick Henry

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The Epic College Football Legacy of Alabama Running Back Derrick Henry
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Derrick Henry is one of four running backs in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy and the national championship during the same season.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When the clock expired and the confetti started to fall at University of Phoenix Stadium, Deshaun Watson wanted to find one player in particular from the opposing sideline, Derrick Henry.

The University of Alabama running back and Watson had gotten to know one another, and it was a relationship the Clemson quarterback wanted to continue. Not only had they become friends, but Henry had achieved the two things that had barely eluded him during the 2015-16 season: the Heisman Trophy and national championship.

"I'm trying to do the same thing and just learn from guys who have been there and done it," Watson said.

There are a lot of people who will be studying Henry's Crimson Tide career, which officially came to a close on Friday with the announcement of his decision to enter the 2016 NFL draft.

Although offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin sort of gave away the decision by saying at the Cotton Bowl, "We'll replace a Heisman Trophy winner just like we did a Biletnikoff winner the year before," there really wasn't much for Henry to come back for, especially when compared to the money he'll soon be making.

"I just felt like this is the way to go out," Henry said. "With everything that happened this year, I've been very fortunate."

Granted, Henry may soon be doing Heisman House ads, but he may not end up being a first-round selection, which is usually the standard Nick Saban uses for giving his blessing for players considering leaving school early.

The NFL's advisory committee gave Henry a second-round grade. 

David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Derrick Henry topped the Alabama single-season rushing record by more than 500 yards.
"Henry doesn't have enough wiggle and change of direction to attract first- and maybe second-round interest," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "Maybe third round for him. He's a build-up-to-speed kind of guy, he doesn't have that initial quickness through the hole...you need for the NFL.

"For Henry I'll say third round, maybe second."

Nevertheless, he's already considered the best running back in Crimson Tide history.

Among Henry's accomplishments:

  • Even though he wasn't considered Alabama's starting running back until this season, he's already the program's all-time leading rusher. Henry had 3,591 career yards to top Shaun Alexander's 3,565 (1996-99).
  • His 2,219 single-season rushing yards shattered Trent Richardson's record of 1,679 (2011), a difference of 540 yards.
  • Henry had 10 100-yard performances in 2015-16, setting a school record.
  • His 28 rushing touchdowns set both a school and Southeastern Conference record that was previously 23 (Tim Tebow and Tre Mason). His career mark of 42 tied Mark Ingram (2008-10) for the lead at Alabama.
  • The last time Henry failed to score a touchdown in a game was against LSU in 2014.
  • Henry became the 25th back in NCAA history to rush for 2,000 or more yards in a single season but the first in the SEC. He topped Herschel Walker's league record of 1,891 yards on 385 carries set in 1981.

The numbers are even more remarkable considering that Alabama's initial approach this past season was to use a two-back attack.

"I didn't know who would be more productive, Derrick Henry or Kenyan Drake," Saban said.

Anonymous/Associated Press
Many consider Herschel Walker the greatest running back to play college football.
But while Drake ran into some injury issues and the only other running backs on the roster were freshmen, Henry carried more and more of the offense, especially during the second half of the season. When he started approaching and surpassing the benchmark numbers achieved by Bo Jackson and Walker, awards voters couldn't ignore him.

Since the Doak Walker Award for best running back started being handed out in 1990, Henry's just the fourth player to win it along with the Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp Player of the Year awards all in the same season (Ron Dayne in 1999, Ricky Williams in 1998 and Eddie George in 1995).

Against nine ranked teams he ended up rushing for 166.6 yards per game (1,499), exceeding 200 against three of them. The only one in which Henry didn't get at least 125 yards against was Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, a 38-0 victory during which the coaches clearly held him back.

"We haven't really played anyone that big," Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough said. "But what he does well is he doesn't go down. Takes him two, three, four guys to take him down and he's always falling forward. So he makes the two-yard gains turn into five or six. If you continue to do that for an entire game, you know, it wears down the defenses. That's what you see what happens as the third, fourth quarter comes around."

He did get his yards against Clemson on the biggest stage of his career, rushing for 158 yards on 36 carries and scoring three touchdowns after Dabo Swinney called him "a whole different animal." Henry probably would have been named the offensive MVP of the national championship game if junior tight end O.J. Howard hadn't had 208 receiving yards.

National Title/Heisman Winners Same Season
Name Position School Season
Davey O'Brien QB Texas Christian 1938
Bruce Smith RB Minnesota 1940
Angelo Bertelli QB Notre Dame 1943
Felix 'Doc' Blanchard FB Army 1945
John Lujack QB Notre Dame 1947
Leon Hart End Notre Dame 1949
Tony Dorsett RB Pittsburgh 1976
Charlie Ward QB Florida State 1993
Danny Wuerffel QB Florida 1996
Charles Woodson CB Michigan 1997
Matt Leinart QB USC 2004
Mark Ingram Jr. RB Alabama 2009
Cam Newton QB Auburn 2010
Jameis Winston QB Florida State 2013
Derrick Henry RB Alabama 2015

heisman.com

"It's tough to go one-on-one with him," Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. "It's like old-school football, if you're not ready to go before he touches the ball, then it won't work out."

Consequently, when it comes to Henry's legacy, he's in very exclusive company, and you're splitting hairs when trying to separate him from the best running backs to ever play the game.

Overall, there have been only four running backs in SEC history to have four 200-yard games in one season: Walker, Jackson, Henry and LSU's Leonard Fournette—who just joined them with his 212-yard performance in the Texas Bowl. He'll have a better shot at challenging Walker's 171.9 rushing yards per game in 1981 and 159.4 for his collegiate career.

Moreover, Henry was technically only a starter for one season and is not in the top 10 of all-time SEC rushing leaders, a prestigious list topped by Walker with 5,259 yards from 1980-82, followed by Arkansas' Darren McFadden (4,590), LSU's Kevin Faulk (4,557) and Jackson (4,303).

But none of them led his team to a conference and national championship while playing a schedule like Alabama's, nor as a co-captain of his team. They also never quite did what Henry accomplished in back-to-back games against Auburn and Florida in the SEC Championship Game.

"I didn't think I would see that ever, 90 carries in seven days—and then I think he could have kept going," Kiffin said. "He was in the locker room afterwards like he just was warming up.

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"Somehow he just continues to get stronger, and that goes back to how he works, the way that he practices, the way that we're in the sprints in the practice—and he's not worried about anything else except for getting himself better."

"I think our team kind of [took] on his persona and physical nature," former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said.

Perhaps that's Henry's true legacy and the one that will be widely overlooked. He didn't just have as much drive and determination as anyone else, but the Crimson Tide did as well.

That's what earned him the honor of being a co-captain on the nation's most high-profile team despite being just a junior. It's also what helps make him comparable to college football's greatest running backs.

"That's just the culture that our program and our coaching staff has created here at Alabama," Henry said. "We work as hard as we can and try to get better week after week. It all comes down to hard work." 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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