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Primed to Shine

By Matt Osborne
SouthernPigskin.com
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Given a real opportunity to shine on the national stage, Derrick Henry certainly did not disappoint with his performance.

Alabama hasn’t simply become the most dominant football program in all of college football since the arrival of Nick Saban; it has also turned into a veritable factory for producing NFL running backs.

As such, the country has naturally taken notice of Alabama’s propensity for producing running backs. Elite high school backfield prospects across the nation have swarmed to Tuscaloosa in droves in an attempt to continue the tremendous legacy already established by players such as Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.

With so many talented prospects migrating to the Yellowhammer State, the natural byproduct has been a logjam of talent at the running back position. Four- and five-star recruits who were sought after by nearly every college program as high school seniors frequently find themselves in the midst of a challenging battle just to earn playing time on offense.

As a freshman in 2012, T.J. Yeldon was able to emerge from Alabama’s intense running back competition as the primary backup to veteran Eddie Lacy.

Though serving in a backup role, Yeldon still managed to finish his first season of collegiate eligibility with 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. His rushing total ranked him sixth in the Southeastern Conference on the season.

Following Lacy being selected by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Alabama turned to Yeldon to become the team’s featured back; a noteworthy honor given the recent tradition associated with the position.

As has become customary at Alabama, however, the promotion to starter served as both a gift and a curse for Yeldon. While it afforded with him an opportunity to further showcase his athletic prowess, it also opened the door for another of Alabama’s talented youngsters to display his talents as well.

Statistically speaking, the player to benefit the most from a more prominent role in the backfield was sophomore Kenyan Drake, who finished the season as the Crimson Tide’s second-leading rusher with 694 yards.

Even though Drake served as Yeldon’s primary backup for the vast majority of the season, true freshman Derrick Henry established himself as Yeldon’s main competition from the standpoint of pure running abilities.

Saban addressed Henry’s perceived lack of playing time during the regular season – 27 carries for 282 yards – saying that he was still very much a work in progress when it came to pass blocking and fully comprehending the complete Alabama playbook.

But with the opportunity to study the playbook intently and work on his pass blocking skills with the 15 additional bowl practices, Henry was able to earn the trust of the coaching staff enough to be listed as Alabama’s No. 2 back heading into the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.

"Actually we decided that he was our second best back going into [the Sugar Bowl], and we were going to give him an opportunity based on his performance in practice and what he had done and the confidence that he had gained throughout the course of the season in terms of knowing what to do and playing fast,” Saban commented to members of the media shortly following Alabama’s season-ending loss. "[Derrick] certainly had an outstanding game tonight and did a really good job for us, and I think he has a bright future."

Given a real opportunity to shine on the national stage, Henry certainly did not disappoint with his performance.

In eight carries against the Sooners, Henry finished with an even 100 yards and a touchdown on the ground, including an impressive 43-yard scoring burst. He also added a 61-yard touchdown reception on a swing pass from A.J. McCarron.

The Oklahoma game served as one of Henry’s few opportunities as a freshman to show off the combination of raw power and athleticism which made him one of the most coveted recruits nationally in the 2013 class.

At six-foot-three, and a chiseled 240 pounds, Henry stepped onto campus and instantly became one of the most physically intimidating players in the country.

What may have come as a surprise to most is the fact that, despite his large stature for the position, he also possesses elite speed and agility in the open field. His speed was never on better display than it was against Arkansas, when he jaunted 80 yards for a touchdown, easily pulling away from the Razorbacks secondary in the process.

Yeldon has already clearly cemented himself as an elite running back at the college level, but the undeniable fact of the matter is that there is no running back on the Alabama roster with better physical tools than Derrick Henry.

It is always uncomfortable to see a veteran player removed from his prominent role in favor of an up-and-coming star, but that should be what happens in Tuscaloosa in 2014.

Players with Henry’s skill set do not come around very often, and it would be a shame to not let him be the featured back in Alabama’s physical offensive set.

Matt Osborne - Matt Osborne is the director of recruiting and the lead editor for Southern Pigskin. Having served as a coach and scout in the past, Matt now co-hosts the syndicated radio show "Three & Out" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. Matt's work has been published in a number of national publications, including USA Today, and he is considered to be one of the leading authorities on southern college football. Follow Matt on Twitter: @UrbanWhiteGuy. For media requests, please email Matt at matt@southernpigskin.com.