TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Derrick Henry made a quick impression on his Alabama teammates upon arriving on campus as a coveted prospect with everything from his hardcore weight room workouts to those middle-of-the-night pushup sessions.
Big, physical and by all accounts a tireless worker, Henry stood out even in a program that’s been handing off tailbacks to the NFL pretty much annually. Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland learned the hard way in one early practice encounter.
“When you meet him in the hole,” Ragland says now, “you better bring everything you’ve got.”
The 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry is perhaps the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. New Orleans Saints tailback Mark Ingram is the school’s lone Heisman winner, capturing the trophy in 2009.
Henry’s numbers are better; in fact, better than any other Tide runner. He’s already broken Herschel Walker’s SEC single-season rushing record, reaching 1,986 yards with a big league championship game performance in Saturday’s 29-15 win over Florida. That earned Alabama a No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
Granted, he’s done it in 13 games, two more than Walker. But Henry also matched the SEC record of 23 rushing touchdowns shared with Tim Tebow and Tre Mason during his 189-yard performance against the Gators.
“He just put icing on the cake,” said tight end O.J. Howard, who witnessed those early pushup workouts as Henry’s roommate.
The durable Henry has logged an even heavier workload than usual in the past two games. He’s had 90 carries and 460 yards combined against Auburn and Florida.
He’s mostly deflected Heisman talk, while quickly sharing credit with teammates.
“My main focus is on finishing and helping this team win,” Henry said after the SEC championship game. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to help this team win. Whether it’s me running the ball, catching the ball or pass blocking, I just want this team to win. It’s a team effort.”
Henry, who has scored touchdowns in a nation’s best 18 consecutive games, has averaged 180.9 yards against seven ranked opponents. His long stride makes him hard to catch in the open field besides being a load between the tackles.
Tide coach Nick Saban said Henry arrived on campus with the same work ethic that’s carried him to the brink of a Heisman. After setting the national high school record for career rushing yards, Henry split carries with T.J. Yeldon his first two seasons before taking over in the backfield.
Saban said he hasn’t coached “many players that actually set a better example to affect other people.”
“I don’t know that there’s any player on the team that the team means more to them than it does to Derrick,” Saban said.
HEISMAN-DEFINING MOMENT: Henry made one cut behind the line and sprinted toward the end zone while Auburn defenders seemed to be moving in slow motion. The 25-yard touchdown in the final minute of the Iron Bowl was especially notable because it was Henry’s 46th carry and 14th in a row to punctuate a 271-yard performance.
— BEST GAME: Henry outshined LSU’s Leonard Fournette in a game that gave Alabama the inside track to the SEC West title. He had 38 runs for 210 yards and three touchdowns. Two of Henry’s scores came in the third quarter when the Tide took control of the game.
— WORST GAME: Henry’s lowest outputs came against lesser teams in easy wins, but Arkansas fared the best among SEC defenses. The Razorbacks limited him to 95 yards on 27 carries.
— PRO PROSPECTS: A junior, Henry is widely regarded as the second-best running back who could be available in the 2016 draft behind Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. That could place him late in the first round or dropping into the second if the projections hold up. Alabama has had four running backs drafted in the first two rounds since 2011, including first-rounders Ingram and Trent Richardson.
AP college football website: collegefootballap.org