Alabama's recruiting success begins with running backs like Derrick Henry

by | staff

Alabama's stable of running backs could get even deeper next year with the all-time leading rusher in high school football history set to join coach Nick Saban's roster.

Derrick Henry (Yulee, Fla.) surpassed the 59-year-old national record of 11,232 yards with a 482-yard, six-touchdown performance Friday night in a 41-26 win over Taylor County High School. Henry now stands alone atop the record board at 11,613 rushing yards.

Someone with those kinds of credentials might expect to make an immediate impact on the college level. But assuming he keeps his verbal commitment and signs with Alabama, there's a good chance he'll begin his Crimson Tide career buried on the depth chart, possibly behind three or more running backs.

That's because the Crimson Tide have built their blueprint to success behind a stable of workhorses at the position. Saban continues to reel in some of the country’s top running backs each recruiting haul. Even with the impending national record, Henry would be just another name in a long list of backs jockeying for carries.

Why pick Alabama when more immediate or more plentiful playing time might be easily obtained elsewhere?

"Recruits like the way they run the ball down at Alabama, which is a pro style," CBS Sports college football recruiting expert Tom Lemming said. "A lot of the schools now are spread offenses, in which a running back is not used in an NFL way like Nick Saban's offense is. That means a lot to these kids and that's what's being sold to them. They all want to get to the NFL and Alabama is one of the quickest ways."

The trend started with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, one of whom is a Heisman Trophy winner and both of whom are national champions and first-round NFL draft picks. Although the duo may have been the ones who first validated Saban's emphasis on running backs as a model for success, the best may yet be to come.

The Tide currently have one of the top one-two rushing duos in the country in junior Eddie Lacy (771 rushing yards, 9 touchdowns) and freshman T.J. Yeldon (754 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns).

That doesn't account for freshman Kenyan Drake, who is averaging 7.1 yards per carry on 29 attempts this season in addition to two scores.

The program's rushing reputation may be even greater if not for a pair of season-ending knee injuries to redshirt freshman Dee Hart and short-yardage specialist Jalston Fowler.

Although Hart -- who was ranked No. 44 overall in Lemming's Top 100 players in 2011 -- and Fowler have lengthy rehab processes ahead, Alabama's ground game won't suffer.

Even if Lacy leaves early to enter the NFL Draft, Yeldon returns as arguably the top running back in the country -- as a sophomore. Besides Henry, who is ranked No. 11 overall in Lemming’s Top 100 players for 2013, Alabama also has commitments from Altee Tenpenny (North Little Rock, Ark.) and Tyren Jones (Walton/Marietta, Ga.). Tenpenny is Lemming's 46th overall player, while Jones ranks 79th.

"Very rarely do truly elite athletes make decisions based on other recruits or players at their position," MaxPreps National Football Editor Stephen Spiewak said. "In most cases, they've dominated every level of football they've played, and have no qualms about competing."

Alabama has already earned one verbal commitment in the class of 2014. You can probably guess at what position, too.

Bo Scarbrough (Northridge/Tuscaloosa, Ala.) announced his pledge to the Tide in September, and is arguably the top running back in his class. He will join the crowded Alabama depth chart in two years.

"Nick Saban is a great recruiter," Lemming said. "He's great at evaluating and also just talking to kids. I think he's the hardest-working head coach in the country. He stays on top of kids. He tells them: 'If you’re afraid of the competition, don't come here.' "

And judging by his recruitment, Henry isn't scared. Throughout the process, Alabama's coaches have been upfront about the Tide's congested backfield, and that didn't deter Henry from his decision. More importantly, he feels at home in Tuscaloosa.

"I think the one big thing is how he interacted with the players -- just the feeling he got when he was around them," Yulee head coach Bobby Ramsay said. "I think that was the No. 1 thing. The depth chart -- I said, 'Don’t look at the depth chart. I don't care if they have 20 running backs or two running backs. You've got to be happy with the school that you're at. If you feel at home there, then you're going to be happy and you're going to do well.' "

Henry is averaging 327 rushing yards per game this season, but all of that will be meaningless once Henry straps on his Crimson helmet next year.

"I think from Derrick's standpoint, he wants to play with other good players," Ramsay said. "I think he accepted a challenge with Alabama. It's not going to be like it was here, where he's clearly the best. He's going to have to go make his name, but I think he accepts that."


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