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Alabama running back Derrick Henry emerges as offseason MVP in crowded backfield

Derrick Henry (left) works at practice with the running backs. (Photo via UA Athletics)
Derrick Henry (left) works at practice with the running backs. (Photo via UA Athletics)

TUSCALOOSA,Ala.–Alabama had its first Spring practice in pads on Wednesday, which served as another chance for running back Derrick Henry to entrench himself as a leader on this year’s team.

“He’s one of the hardest workers on our team,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “If you were going to give a Most Valuable Player in the offseason program for just finishing, running hard, finishing every race, finishing every drill he would have probably got it…He has a real burning desire to be a really, really good player, and works really hard at it.”

After only three practices this Spring, Saban said some players still have to learn how to practice correctly, but Henry has never been that type of player, and has improved during the offseason. He had 990 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last season, and had 95 yards and a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl against Ohio State. But he refuses to focus on that, with his mind set on the future.

Alabama returns only two starters on offense in 2015 — center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson — but Henry has taken it upon himself to become a leader on that offense and in the backfield.

“I set the tone as a leader,” Henry said. “I just want to make everyone better around me and get them to push themselves. I’m going to give my all every time I’m out there.”

With starter T.J. Yeldon headed to the NFL, Henry assumes the main role, along with returning runner Kenyan Drake who will be used again this year as more of a change-of-pace rusher or in a receiving role. Saban said the team will explore every way possible to get Henry and Drake — returning from an ankle injury against Ole Miss — on the field at the same time.

Entering Spring practice, Henry has told all of the young players to ask him questions whenever they arise, and that he will help them and watch film with them if they want. He’s learned every year about blocking techniques, and emphasizes blocking to the younger players as a significant aspect of being a running back in college football.

“Derrick Henry, I think, has improved in all aspects of the game where he doesn’t have the ball,” Saban said. “He’s improved blocking, improved on being a better receiver, understanding pass protections.”

During the offseason, Saban had each player fill out a personal improvement plan to identify the areas of their game that needs to improve the most. It’s what he has the players do when they’re not focusing on playing a particular opponent.

Where Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen had specific targets like better hand placement, Henry couldn’t pick just one area.

“I’m working on everything,” Henry said. “Better fundamentals, better technique, better attention to detail, just everything I need to do to become a complete back.”

Saban values competition over most things, saying he has a tremendous amount of respect for those that don’t assume a position is given to someone because it’s vacant. Henry has earned his position as a starter so far, and should continue to do just that through Spring practice.

“He’s relentless,” Allen said. “First in everything he does. First in the run, first off the field, on the field, everything. He just has that drive.”

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