ARLINGTON, Texas — Release the beast.
That’s what the University of Alabama football team did during its marque matchup with Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium. Junior running back Derrick Henry may have only touched the ball 15 times Saturday night, but he certainly made the most of them while accumulating 159 all-purpose yards and scoring three touchdowns.
“Any time you can look up and see No. 2 running down the field with a whole bunch of guys chasing him, that’s an awesome feeling,” senior center Ryan Kelly said.
He might get to experience that a lot this season. After a relatively quiet training camp, when most of the attention was focused on the passing game—who will start at quarterback and how will Alabama replace Amari Cooper?—Henry showed why some believe he’ll be a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy.
Against the Badgers he had 13 carries for 147 rushing yards for an 11.3 average, despite being one of nine new starters on the offense. Granted, among them the coaching staff probably worried the least about Henry, but they also made a point not to overuse him.
That could be crucial for the Crimson Tide’s title chances, especially since Wisconsin was the first of seven teams ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 Poll that Alabama has on the regular schedule.
“Oh man, Derrick the whole game was pretty impressive,” quarterback Jake Coker said.
After taking handoffs on the four snaps of the game, Henry only needed a seam during the second possession to score a 37-yard touchdown.
“Truly I didn’t know it was 4th-and-1,” Henry said. “I didn’t know. I didn’t care. As long as we got the touchdown I was happy.”
His second touchdown pretty much broke Wisconsin’s back. On Alabama’s second offensive snap of the second half he went 56 yards, which also put him over the 100-yard mark for the sixth time of his career. Four of those have been in neutral-site games.
The third score he just plowed through the left side for a two-yard touchdown. Wisconsin didn’t seem too interested in trying to stop him anymore, and Alabama obliged by pulling him later in the third quarter.
“That’s what we expect out of him and he played a real good game,” said senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, who has to face Henry every day in practice. “It’s tough.”
Wisconsin was also without starting safety Michael Caputo, the team co-captain who led the Badgers in tackles last season with 106. After being run over by Henry, he was seen trying to line up on Alabama's side of the field and was quickly pulled with what was believed to be a concussion.
Henry also scored all three touchdowns when going to his left, which was obviously the strength of the line. In addition to sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson, the only returning starter besides Kelly, redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher made a strong first impression.
“He was awesome,” Kelly said. “I think everyone kind of forgets that he’s just a redshirt freshman, it was his first game starting and had never played in a game before that. I was kind of a backup and kind of transition himself into a starting role.
“He has a lot of power and great potential.”
With Henry not having to take more of a pounding, coaches were able to get other players some needed work. Senior Kenyan Drake, who was playing in his first game since the horrific leg fracture at Ole Miss last season, had a confidence-building 77 rushing yards on 10 carries, and on 3rd-and-26 kept the play alive with a spin move out of a tackle and turned it into a 43-yard touchdown.
True freshman Damien Harris also made his Crimson Tide debut, while Bo Scarbrough began serving a four-game eligibility suspension.
Coming in, a lot was made of the running back matchup, with Corey Clement having a career 7.0 average per carry and Wisconsin’s top running back having topped 1,600 rushing yards in each of the past four seasons.
However, Clement never got going. Limited by a groin injury, he managed just 16 rushing yards on eight carries, and reserves Taiwan Deal and Dare Ogunbowale combined for 14 carries for 30 yards.
Overall, Alabama outgained the Badgers on the ground 238-40. It could have been a lot more lopsided had Alabama wanted to pad Henry’s numbers.
“He usually plays better as the game goes on in terms of workhorse-type guy,” Nick Saban said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.