There’s nothing about Alabama running back Derrick Henry that putting 11 defenders along the line of scrimmagecan’t solve. …
Or 14 if you could somehow hypnotize the officials into not counting who’s on the field.
Henry is one of those physical freaks who show up in the SEC every decade or so. He might not have the pure talent of former greats Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson, but he has the dimensions (6-foot-2 and 242 pounds) and the power to control a game when the Crimson Tide is playing with a lead.
This is problem No. 1 for Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Let him describe:
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"He’s a great physical presence. He wears you down. As the game goes on he gets better," Venables said Saturday while preparing for Monday night’s national championship game in Glendale, Ariz.
"If he gets to the second level, it’s going to be a very long day. You have to hit him low and get a lot of hats on him. Get him before he gets started north and south."
Henry, a junior, won the Heisman Trophy this season, beating out - among others - Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. He averaged an astounding 147 rushing yards per game and scored 25 touchdowns.
Henry defines the football term "featured back." He averaged more than 25 carries per game and, remember, that’s on a team that won 10 of its games by 17 or more points.
If you ask him to carry the ball 40 times, he’ll carry it 40 times without complaint. It’s his nature.
"He runs 40 plays a game and never complains about being sore or anything like that. That’s what makes him so special," said Alabama center Ryan Kelly.
"You see him on the field, but you don’t see all the hours he puts in after practice. Those are the hours that ultimately pay off at the end. He’s not that guy who just turns it on on Saturday."
Yes, that’s a cliché: The team’s best player is also its hardest work, blah, blah, blah. But in this particular case, it applies. Alabama running backs coach Burton Burns, a veteran presence who spent eight seasons on Clemson’s staff, says Henry is wired differently even in a program where excellence is the standard.
"It’s not a negative against other players, but he’s really committed to prepare himself both physically and mentally," Burns said. "If you ask him to run 20 miles, he runs 20 miles. If you ask him to be in the weight room all day, he does it. He’s determined to be the best player he can be. It shows up across the board. It shows up every day."
When Henry, who grew up in Yulee, Fla., committed to the Crimson Tide, they knew they had something special. They just didn’t know what sort of special. In a Cam Newton-esque way, he was a skill-position player with defensive end dimensions.
It took some time to figure out how best to utilize him.
"He’s unique in that his body type is so different from your prototypical running back," Burns said. "I remember him coming out of high school and everyone was trying to figure out, ‘Is this guy a running back? Is he a defensive player?’
"His style is unique: So tall, big and just the way he works at the game."
Henry isn’t much of a talker. He’s polite in interviews, but guarded. Maybe that’s a survival instinct: When you run the ball 40 times in a football game you are by definition a target. Why give tacklers any additional reason to hit you hard?
"This is the last one. This is the big one. We’re blessed to be here," Henry said Saturday. "We expect to be dominant every year. Coach (Nick) Saban does a great job with the players and that’s why we’re good every year."
Henry is the single biggest reason the Crimson Tide are 12-1 and in this championship game. His ability to gain first downs and burn the clock is an ideal complement to Alabama’s defense-centric style.
So, Brent Venables, what do you do about Henry?
"Who’s Henry?" Venables dead-panned.
Yes, he was kidding.