GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A central theme emerged in the buildup prior to both of Florida’s losses during the regular season.
The first was named Leonard Fournette. The second goes by Dalvin Cook.
A similar plot exists in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game in Atlanta between the No. 18 Gators (10-2) and No. 2-ranked Alabama (11-1).
His name is Derrick Henry. Gators coach Jim McElwain offered a couple of images Monday of what the 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry looks like running the ball.
"I don’t know if fast-moving semi is a good visual," McElwain said. "There was this movie one time about this train that was like out of control, going really fast and they has to stop it before it blew up the city."
Junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves understands exactly what McElwain is saying.
Hargreaves was on the field in last season’s 42-21 loss at Alabama when Henry was just a sidebar, rushing for 111 yards in a game the Crimson Tide rolled up 672 yards of offense, the most allowed in school history in a single game. Former Alabama standouts Blake Sims (445 yards passing) and receiver Amari Cooper (201 yards, three touchdowns) were the stars, but Henry made an impression.
"When he has a full head of steam coming at you, you know, he’s a big back," Hargreaves said. "It’s not that fun. He can make you miss. He can run you over."
Henry has ran over would-be tacklers all season. He leads the nation in rushing (1,797 yards) and has positioned himself as a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. The Gators get Henry coming off the best game of his career.
In Alabama’s win over Auburn on Saturday, Henry carried a school-record 46 times for 271 yards and his 22nd touchdown of the season, eclipsing Trent Richardson’s school-record (1,679) for yards and touchdowns (21) set in 2011.
He expects to be tested by Florida’s defense.
"They are great at what they do," Henry said. "Very athletic, very fast and physical. They are kind of similar to our defense. I just try to stay mentally locked in and just focus on finishing and getting a win."
Henry needs 95 yards Saturday to break former Georgia running back Herschel Walker’s 34-year-old SEC record for rushing yards in a single season (1,891), set in 1981 when Walker was a sophomore. A junior from Yulee, Fla., Henry is Alabama’s go-to player much the way Cooper was a season ago.
"He’s the real deal," McElwain said. "Hopefully we’re not just a speed bump in the road."
Henry grew up a Florida fan during Tim Tebow’s career and was recruited by Florida. However, he landed at Alabama and is the latest in a string of great backs produced by the Crimson Tide in nine years under head coach Nick Saban.
"What Derrick has done for this team," Saban said following Saturday’s win, "because this team needs him to do what he does, I would say, he’s made as significant an impact on his team as any players we’ve ever had."
Henry is the fourth running back among the nation’s top eight rushing leaders the Gators will face this season. They have had mixed results so far.
In the season opener Florida limited New Mexico State’s Larry Rose III, who is eighth in the country in rushing with 1,587 yards, to 12 carries for 64 yards.
In a 35-28 loss at LSU, the Gators had a difficult time slowing down Fournette, the early frontrunner to win the Heisman before Henry outshined him in their head-to-head matchup last month in Tuscaloosa. Fournette, the nation’s second-leading rusher (1,741 yards) behind Henry, rushed for 180 yards on 31 carries and two touchdowns against a Florida defense that is ranked fifth overall nationally (283.6 yards per game), and seventh against the run (111.3 ypg).
Meanwhile, in their 27-2 loss to Florida State on Saturday, the Gators contained Cook to just 33 yards through three quarters. However, with no help from the offense, Florida’s defense began to wear down in the fourth quarter as Cook, fifth nationally with 1,658 yards, rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns in the final quarter.
While Florida’s sputtering offense must produce points for Florida to have a chance Saturday against a heavily favored Alabama team that enters with a nine-game winning streak, the defense must find a way to limit the damage done by Henry.
"He’s an elite talent. He’s going to make you tackle him," former Gators coach Will Muschamp, in his first season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, told reporters leading into last week’s Iron Bowl. "He’s 240 pounds and he leans on you to get four and five yards when you’re hitting him or when you don’t hit him in the backfield and he gets going a bit."
Many have tried without much success. Arkansas did the best job defending Henry, limiting him to 3.5 yards per carry (27 rushes, 95 yards). Still, Alabama won 27-14.
"Derrick’s improved every year he’s been here," Saban said. "The big thing that he always wants to do is everything that he can do to help the team. He’s done a really good job of that all year, whether he’s had the ball or he hasn’t had the ball."
The Florida defense will be without injured defensive end Alex McCalister (foot) on Saturday, and linebacker Antonio Morrison is hobbled by an injury. However, defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard, Joey Ivie, Caleb Brantley and Jordan Sherit all played against FSU to boost the depth up front.
Bullard is ready for the challenge.
"If we hold him throughout the whole game, that’s going to be really on us," he said. "If we keep hitting him hard and doing our job … I’m confident in my group."