Alabama running back Derrick Henry, college football’s latest Heisman Trophy hopeful among upsized downhill runners, has drawn inspiration during his record-setting junior season from a man he’s never met.
Henry, who leads the nation in rushing yards (1,986), carries (339) and rushing touchdowns (23) heading into Saturday’s live announcement of the Heisman winner in New York, became smitten this year with highlights of a running back he watched during a special that aired on the NFL Network.
Regardless of whether he takes home the stiff-armed trophy during Saturday’s presentation ceremony (7 p.m., ESPN), Henry said he hopes to leave New York with memories of a face-to-face meeting and handshake with the Heisman winner from 38 years ago who inspired him to achieve great things this season for the Crimson Tide: Earl Campbell, the Texas Longhorns’ 1977 Heisman winner who played his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Houston Oilers.
“I knew who Earl Campbell was from when he played at Texas,” Henry said during an interview at this week’s Home Depot College Football Awards show in Atlanta. “But I watched some of the highlights from when he played with the Oilers and thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ Earl Campbell was a different breed, man. Every since I saw those highlights, I’ve been watching on YouTube all the time. I just love [watching] Earl Campbell.”
Asked if he spotted similarities in their powerful running styles, Henry said: “I wouldn’t say I see a similarity to him because I don’t want to compare myself to him. What he did was just unbelievable. But I’d really love to meet him. That’s something I hope I get to do in New York.”
Part of the Heisman presentation ceremony involves a meet-and-greet session between finalists and past recipients. Henry (6-foot-3, 242 pounds) hopes to cross paths with Campbell (5-11, 232) at that function.
Henry’s 2015 season already tops Campbell’s Heisman-winning effort from 1977 in multiple categories. Henry already has established the SEC single-season rushing record (1,986 yards), previously held by Herschel Walker, and will be able to pad his stats during Alabama’s participation in the College Football Playoff. Henry leads the nation with 23 rushing touchdowns and has rushed for 152.8 yards per game, including a 180.1 average in seven matchups against Top 25 opponents.
Campbell ground out 1,744 yards and scored 18 rushing touchdowns on his way to winning the 1977 Heisman. But the “Tyler Rose” did so in just 11 games (158.5 yards per contest). Henry already has played in 13 games, with No. 14 coming when No. 2 Alabama (12-1) meets No. 3 Michigan State (12-1) in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, Dec. 31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Las Vegas oddsmakers and fellow Heisman finalists consider Henry the favorite heading into Saturday’s ceremony that also includes Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, winner of the 2015 Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award. Henry already has won three postseason awards this season: the Doak Walker Award, given to the top running back, as well as the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Award, given to the top overall player.
LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who missed out on an invitation to the Heisman ceremony despite a standout season of his own (1,741 yards, 18 TDs), anticipates another honor for his SEC colleague Saturday. Asked about Henry, Fournette said: “He’s like a machine. He’s a great player.”
Henry also qualifies as a great teammate, said Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, a Fort Worth Arlington Heights graduate. Robinson said it was “pretty crazy” watching Henry carry the ball a combined 90 times for 460 yards and two touchdowns in the Crimson Tide’s last two victories: a 29-13 triumph over Auburn to reach the SEC championship game and a 29-15 win over Florida that sealed a berth in the playoffs.
“He’s done everything that a back is supposed to do this whole year,” Robinson said. “He’s played against top-ranked opponents, ran for 200 yards against them, scored multiple touchdowns against them. What else do you want from him? He broke records. He’s done everything you could ask of him as a teammate out there. I think it (the Heisman) should be his.”
Henry, like Campbell in his prime, takes pride in his ability to carry a team to victories with his powerful running style, particularly while protecting fourth-quarter leads. Against Auburn, he carried the ball on 19 of 21 fourth-quarter plays while helping Alabama break open a close contest. In the SEC title game, he carried 44 times for 189 yards against Florida.
Asked about logging 90 carries in his past two games, Henry said: “I don’t really focus on that. I just try to get better and better as the game goes on. My main focus is on finishing ... I know I had a lot of carries (within a seven-day stretch), but the next day, or the day after that, I went for a run and I felt fine. If I can get a lot of carries, I’m willing to do it.”
If he can mix in a visit with Earl Campbell before joining the Texas legend in Heisman lore Saturday night, Henry will consider it an ideal trip to New York.
Heisman Trophy presentation
7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN