Running back Henry wants to improve, stay on the field more

Anniston StarApril 10, 2014 

Sugar Bowl Football

PATRICK SEMANSKY/Associated PressAlabama running back Derrick Henry takes off on a touchdown run Jan. 2 as Oklahoma linebacker Frank Shannon pursues during the second half of the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

PATRICK SEMANSKY — AP

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- From being "THE guy" to one of many guys, Derrick Henry's transition from high school to college football wasn't an easy one.

Statiscally, Henry put together the most impressive career of any running back in the history of high school football. His 12,124 rushing yards during his four years at Yulee (Fla.) broke Ken Hall's (Sugarland, Texas) 59-year-old rushing record.

But during his first season at Alabama, Henry quickly learned that he would have to do more than just take the hand off and run the ball to see the field for the Crimson Tide.

"In high school, they have players that are good, but everyone isn't great like they are here," Henry said. "Everyone here was that guy at their school. During my first practice here, I was like 'Oh snap. Everybody's flying around.' It was kind of crazy. As you go on, you kind of get used to it and everything slows down. You start playing better."

Henry saw time in the Tide's season opener against Virginia Tech, but visibly struggled in pass protection. That and other factors limited his game action and at one point, he wore a scout team jersey during practice and was the fourth running back in drills.

Henry, a rising sophomore, said the lack of playing time tested his patience.

"Me coming from high school and me being the guy then coming here and not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot. It humbled me," Henry said. "Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it. You have to take time. This is college football so it's more technique.

"You have to put more effort into by watching film and really paying attention to the little things like coach (Burton) Burns and coach (Nick) Saban preach. That's what I had to do to be able to get on the field and that's what I did."

Things began to click for Henry after Christmas break during Alabama's preparation for its Sugar Bowl matchup with Oklahoma. He benefited from the extra bowl practices and said those workouts helped him turn the corner as a player.

What improvements did he make during those bowl practices?

"Just running the ball better and being more comfortable," Henry said. "Playing fast. Blitz pickup. Blitz pickup was one of my biggest struggles because in high school you don't really have to pick up blitz because we ran the ball most of the time.

"Coming back after Christmas and being able to relearn everything and slow everything down and watch the blitzes really helped. That's why I had success in the (Oklahoma) game."

The results: 161 total yards (100 rushing, 61 receiving) and two touchdowns on just nine touches.

Henry ran around and through Oklahoma defenders.

"During the Oklahoma game, I could tell that they didn't want to tackle me," Henry said. "I just kept the mindset of being physical and keep running hard so everything will open up. I got some yards and I was able to get some touchdowns."

Want to know what makes Henry so special from a defensive perspective? Just ask Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland.

"He's 6'4", 240 and runs like a 5'10" guy," Ragland said. "So he's a big guy. A lot of people are scared to tackle him."

Technically, Henry is listed at 6-foot-3, 241 pounds, but the point remains -- defenders don't want to see a player of his size with his speed and strength coming straight at them.

He finished the season with 382 rushing yards, 61 receiving and four total touchdowns as a true freshman.

Saban has received two questions about Henry during his news conferences this spring and hasn't been shy about praising Henry's efforts.

Furthermore, Saban has used words like "fabulous" and "outstanding" to describe Henry's spring.

"He's had a great spring so far, done a really good job," Saban said during his first news conference of spring practice. "He's playing just like he left off. He's got a lot of confidence now. He understands what to do, he plays fast, he's very physical. He's had an outstanding spring so far."

On Wednesday, Saban was again very complimentary of the work Henry has put in this offseason.

"Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring," Saban said Wednesday. "He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it. Very conscientious guy. He sets a great example. Physical in the way he plays. Very conscientious and pays attention to detail."

His teammates have noticed a change as well. Tide running back Jalston Fowler said Henry has "grown a lot" and that the Sugar Bowl performance didn't surprise him.

"He worked his butt off. The kid is always working. I mean always," Fowler said. "Whether he's getting extra reps in or lifting weights, he's doing something extra because he wants to be great. That's what I like about in."

Henry is one of three running backs that Saban has said "have all been outstanding this spring" with the other two being returning starter T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, both juniors.

In running back drills so far this spring, Henry has worked behind Yeldon and ahead of Drake during the media's viewing period of practice.

"We all do things a little bit different," Henry said. "We're all good at what we do and we're trying to get better. T.J. has speed and power. Drake has speed, agility and quickness. I'm just a power back. I got a little speed too. We're all just trying to get better, but we bring something different because we're different backs."

With new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin coming in, all three backs may have an opportunity to get their fair share of touches.

Henry wants to be the starter, he said. But that isn't his main focus going forward.

"That's one of my goals, but right now I'm just focused on getting better and becoming a complete player so I can have that opportunity to be on the field more than I did last year," Henry said. "My main focus is getting better, become a complete back and being a better student of the game so I can help this team win."

Contact Anniston Star Sports Writer Marq Burnett mburnett@annistonstar.com. On Twitter,note>

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