No. 2 Alabama just keeps feeding the ball to Derrick Henry
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Alabama kept giving the ball to Derrick Henry – 14 times in a row to put Auburn away.
There really wasn't any question even before Henry's marathon Iron Bowl performance regarding who was the main man in the second-ranked Crimson Tide's offense. Just like it was a no-brainer last season.
The difference is then it was wide receiver Amari Cooper and the school's most prolific passing attack picking apart opposing defenses. Now, it's the 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry physically overwhelming defenders heading into Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game against No. 18 Florida.
The focal point for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin both times: Get the ball to your best player. Then do it again. Old-school coach Nick Saban denies any notion that this smash-mouth style more aligns with his own philosophy.
''I'm not a run and play defense guy,'' he said after the Iron Bowl. ''I'm a score however you can score and play defense guy. You've always got to play defense.''
Passing to Cooper worked well enough to get Alabama (11-1) to an SEC championship and into the playoffs last season. It also made Cooper a Heisman Trophy finalist with a whopping 124 catches for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Henry is likely to be a finalist, too. He's leading the nation in total rushing yards with 1,797 and rushing touchdowns (22), both school records.
An offense that's typically kept its runners fresh during Saban's tenure by rotating in tailbacks such as Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon has become essentially a one-back team.
Saban said the offense evolved this way partly because the offensive line and Henry both kept improving as the season went along. Also, Alabama lost receivers Robert Foster and Chris Black to injuries that required surgery.
Backup tailback Kenyan Drake has had a couple of big games this season but has missed the past two with a broken arm.
Even with freshman receiver Calvin Ridley emerging as a playmaker and quarterback Jake Coker cutting down on mistakes, Henry has clearly been the go-to guy.
He's essentially become a ball hog by averaging 31 carries over the last seven games against FBS teams, including a school-record 46 against the Tigers.
''What they're doing now is getting the ball in the playmakers' hands and being very efficient in what they're doing,'' said Florida coach Jim McElwain, who spent four seasons in Tuscaloosa as Saban's offensive coordinator.
Ingram won the 2009 Heisman and Richardson was a finalist in 2011 during McElwain's watch. Henry is on pace for 2,000-plus yards even if Alabama doesn't make the national championship game and needs one more rushing touchdown to match the SEC single-season mark shared by Florida's Tim Tebow and Auburn's Tre Mason.
''In a long line of great running backs that were there, I think it's a testament to coach Saban and what they're committing to doing year in and year out getting that guy behind center like that,'' McElwain said of Henry. ''He can make a difference in any ballgame. He's definitely a difference maker. We've got our work cut out for trying to jump on his back and slow him down.''
Henry, who grew up a Gators fan in Yulee, Florida, hasn't slowed down in the least. He took his last carry against Auburn 25 yards for a touchdown.
Henry also had 12 carries – though one was negated by penalty – in a game-ending 9-minute drive against LSU.
''That gets us on the sideline excited,'' Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland said. ''You are on the sideline and Derrick gets going and coach just hands him the ball like that, Oh yeah. Five yards. Six yards. Five yards. 10 yards. That makes guys get excited. We love that about him. That means he's a workhorse and we love when he works.''