AJ McCarron let Derrick Henry know that he would be the safety valve. Less than seven minutes remained in the fourth quarter of this year's Allstate Sugar Bowl, with No. 3 Alabama trailing No. 11 Oklahoma 38-24, and McCarron was prepared to put a critical second-and-8 on the shoulders of a freshman who had just 28 touches on the season before the game.
With Henry, one of the top overall prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, shifting out to the right flat just after the ball was snapped, McCarron looked down field before quickly checking down to Henry. Henry made a nifty move on an Oklahoma linebacker toward the middle of the field before sliding by another defender and sprinting to pay dirt. After stepping through another failed tackle attempt, Henry was gone for a 61-yard touchdown that brought the Crimson Tide within one score of the Sooners.
"I just saw the hole," Henry said with a laugh. "I went out there and read what I was supposed to read, [did] my assignment and hit the hole. ... He threw it to me and I just had to make a play."
Henry's play was one that will be burned into Alabama fans' minds for a while, and the thought of his future with the Tide could help ease the pain of the eventual 45-31 loss to Oklahoma. But before Henry was off to the races with a play that appeared to bring Alabama back into such a back-and-forth game, he was making plays that had many wondering why he wasn't on the field more throughout the season.
The living, breathing, truck of a frosh started wowing folks with his speed, agility and strength early in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl when he took a carry and barreled through the middle of both lines, shaking a tackle and then cutting to the right side of the field before winning a footrace with Oklahoma's defense for a 43-yard touchdown run that cut OU's lead to 31-24.
After that -- and a previous T.J. Yeldon fumble -- Henry was Alabama's primary back from then on in the game, carrying the ball eight times on the night for a game-high 100 yards and a touchdown. Henry looked like the record-breaking high school baller who garnered attention from just about every major university before signing with Alabama. He cut, steamrolled and shot himself out of a cannon with his runs.
It was possibly a glimpse into a very bright future for both Henry and Alabama.
"I was ready. The whole season I've been waiting," said Henry, who finished the 2013 season with 382 yards, three touchdowns and 36 carries in nine games of work. "Since I started, I was sixth string and I've just been improving the whole season and I just worked my way up. I thank God for it and thank these coaches for believing in me."
The question now is whether Henry or Yeldon will be the main back going forward. Yeldon has put in two solid years of work with the Tide, but his fumbling issues have always been a drain. Henry passed backup Kenyan Drake, who rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, during bowl prep and could have the upper hand on him again heading into spring.
Regardless, Henry showed why he was such a special high school prospect and why his coaches and teammates were raving about him before he fractured his leg during spring practice. Henry will get plenty of opportunities going forward, and could be one of the big breakout players to keep an eye on in 2014.
"I'm just ready to get to work, become a better student of the game, become a better running back by working on my cuts, bursting and being more physical so I can be a complete back," Henry said.