TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- His dreadlocks were a little longer. They were brighter, too, turned yellow at the tail end of each strand, presumably by bleach. But beyond that, there wasn’t much different about Derrick Henry when he met with the media on Thursday night at Alabama.
If anything, he sounded more tired than usual.
“It was a good offseason,” the weary sophomore said. “Feel like I worked hard, progressed as a player, got in better condition just so I’d be ready for fall camp.”
Standing before him, you’d think he wasn’t the talk of college football. Henry’s 161-yard, two-touchdown performance against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl was a revelation. It was the former five-star prospect’s “this is me” moment after doing relatively little during the regular season. He went from under the radar to a Heisman Trophy contender in the span of one night in New Orleans, running over and around would-be tacklers.
But if you were looking for Henry to feel as if he’d arrived, you were left wanting. He may be one of the biggest running backs in all of college football at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, but his ego on Thursday seemed nonexistent. He said all the right things -- “We’re excited for fall camp.” “We’re all working hard.” “I just make sure I’m on my P's and Q's.” -- and deferred to his teammates at all the right times.
Was he even aware of the hype surrounding him?
“I definitely tune it out. You’ve got to stay humble," he said.
Is there anything he wants to improve on?
“Everything," he said. "I just want to become a complete back.”
How about your 40-yard dash? Have you timed yourself?
“No, no, no.”
Maybe he didn’t want to add more fuel to the fire. Expectations are enormous as it is. People think he’s fast for his size already. Giving them an actual measurement would only prompt further discussion.
What's been lost in the Henry Hype Machine -- and what Henry himself seems to realize -- is that he hasn’t really done all that much up to this point. The starter ahead of him, T.J. Yeldon, has more than 2,000 career rushing yards. Kenyan Drake, who many assume will be the third back behind Yeldon and Henry, had 694 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Henry’s actual numbers as a freshman: 36 carries, 382 rushing yards, three touchdowns. He had one reception, which came against Oklahoma.
"I’d say I have a lot to prove," he said. "I don’t see I’ve done anything that makes me feel like I’ve arrived or anything like that."
If Henry was willing to concede anything, it was that he feels more comfortable in the offense now. He was never asked to block or pass protect in high school, where he set the national record for career rushing yards. Now, he said, “I feel like I can catch the ball pretty well,” which is something new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is asking of all the running backs.
“I’ve just really been focusing in the meetings and in practice, making sure I’m paying attention to [pass blocking and picking up the blitz] because that’s really big in college," he said. "There are a lot of defenses, different defenses, so you’ve got to know the blitzes if you want to play.”
Last season he was nervous. He wasn’t relaxed enough and “letting it all come to me,” he said. Now he knows what he’s doing. Now he said he’s “playing fast.”
That should be a scary thought for the SEC. We all saw what Henry playing fast looked like against Oklahoma. If he can replicate that, he and Yeldon and Drake could form one of the best backfields in the country.
Just don’t expect any kind of riff there. Sharing carries won't be an issue, Henry said.
“Coach will make a decision on how he wants to play. Like I said, whenever I’m in, I’m going to go in there and execute a play, play fast, know what I’m saying?”
We do. But good luck telling that to the people who gave you 20/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy. Good luck telling that to the people saying you should start ahead of Yeldon and Drake. They see a completely different Derrick Henry than a season ago.