TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- During almost any other year, Alabama running back Derrick Henry would take a back seat to no one.
More than anything, he’s incredible to watch. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he’s just so much bigger and stronger and faster than what we’re used to seeing from the position. He’s as likely to run over a linebacker as he is to shimmy by him. And when he gets into the open field and picks up a full head of steam, he’s gone.
But he’s productive, too, with 901 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns through seven games. He’s carrying the ball an average of 21.7 times per game, which is higher than any back in the Nick Saban era at Alabama not named Trent Richardson. Twenty-four of his carries have gone for 10 yards or more and he ranks in the top six nationally in both yards after contact (347) and yards before contact (554).
With 236 yards and two touchdowns against Texas A&M on Saturday, he extended his streak of games with a rushing touchdown to 12, which is the longest in Alabama history and trails only Tim Tebow for the longest in the SEC during the last decade.
But there’s a catch.
And that catch has a name: Leonard Fournette.
LSU’s prodigious sophomore has captured the nation’s attention this season, reminding many of a young Adrian Peterson with his athleticism, strength and a downright angry style of running the football. He leads the country in rushing yards and is tied for first in rushing touchdowns and rushes for 20 yards or more. And he’s done all that despite his team having one less game to work with after their season opener was cancelled due to lightning.
When it comes to judging running backs this year, there’s Fournette and then there’s everyone else. And when you’re talking about the Heisman Trophy race, it’s Fournette vs. the field.
But just in case, there’s Henry. Think of him as the SEC’s backup Heisman plan.
Right now, Henry is on pace to surpass Mark Ingram’s totals from 2009 -- the last time a running back won the trophy. Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns that season. Assuming Henry plays as many games (14) and maintains his current averages, he’ll wind up with 1,802 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground.
Now that’s a lot to ask, of course. In each of Alabama’s last two games, he’s set career highs for total number of carries.
On Monday, two days after carrying the ball 32 times against Texas A&M, Henry said he felt great.
“Anything to help the team win, I’m willing to do,” he said. “Whether its 32 carries or 10 carries, I'm willing to do it.”
Said linebacker Reggie Ragland: “Any time he does that, he makes our job a whole lot easier as a whole team.”
You’d think that at some point the number of touches would catch up with Henry, but maybe that’s not so. Remember, he set the national record for career rushing yards in high school. He basically was the offense at Yulee High in Florida. His former coach, Bobby Ramsay, joked that he thought Child Protective Services might show up after he called Henry’s number 43 times as a freshman. But Henry never wore down.
“He’s a machine,” Ramsay said. “It’s déjà vu. A lot of those runs I’ve seen 50 times.”
On Saturday, Henry will continue his march into the record books at Alabama. Against a Tennessee defense that ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in rushing yards allowed, he figures to have another big day. Chances are he'll make at least one play that makes your jaw drop.
But whether history remembers him as the SEC’s come-from-behind Heisman candidate remains to be seen. He very well could wind up a footnote in the Fournette story.
The good news for both running backs and all fans of college football is that Nov. 7 is almost here. Two Heisman candidates will enter and only one is likely to emerge as Alabama and LSU go head-to-head.