The showdown between Alabama and LSU on Saturday night features a running back who’s putting up Heisman Trophy-type numbers, a tailback whose rare combination of size and speed baffles many.
He delivers jaw-dropping jaunts, out-runs defensive backs and leaves linebackers frozen. He consistently rolls up 100-yard games and rips off touchdown runs.
And he’s not Leonard Fournette.
He’s Bama’s Derrick Henry, and he’s a 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior who’s 12th nationally in yards rushing per game.
Henry has scored 14 touchdowns, just one fewer than Fournette, and he averages nearly 6 yards a carry.
Henry’s 1,044 yards are ninth nationally, and he’s one of 11 backs in the nation to average more than 22 carries a game.
He’s big, strong, physical, fast and agile, and he’s rolling up crazy stat lines. Sound familiar? Fournette’s shadow has loomed over many this year. Henry is squarely in it ahead of the top-10, Southeastern Conference Western Division clash in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“He gets overshadowed for sure,” Alabama quarterback Jake Coker told reporters in Tuscaloosa on Monday about Henry. “He’s a beast.”
Alabama’s ability to slow Fournette — he averages 193 yards a game — has snatched the spotlight in a matchup that even Fournette has called titanic.
LSU slowing Henry?
That’s important, too.
“He’s going to be somebody our defense is going to have to focus on and make sure that there’s some helmets around him,” coach Les Miles said Monday, the start of a hype-filled, anxious week in Baton Rouge.
No. 4 LSU (7-0, 4-0) and No. 7 Alabama (7-1, 4-1) meet with so much on the line.
The winner, especially if it’s the Tigers, takes a massive leap to winning the SEC West and representing the division at the Dec. 5 SEC championship game in Atlanta.
There is no shortage of storylines.
LSU is attempting to stop that nasty four-game skid to the Tide — its longest to an SEC team in nearly 15 years. The game includes a bevy of former highly ranked recruits who picked between the schools during a heated recruiting battle, and current highly touted prospects will be watching from the sideline at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
And then there’s the Heisman race. Fournette, many believe, can grab a stranglehold of the top prize with his performance on prime time and against a defense rife with NFL talent.
Meanwhile, Henry stands in a darkened corner, overshadowed by it all.
“I think both players in their own way are exceptionally good players,” Bama coach Nick Saban said. “Leonard is fast, quick, very competitive the way he runs the ball. Plays with a lot of toughness. Derek is a taller, longer version of a lot of the same things in terms of his competitive spirit, hard to tackle.”
Fournette remains the Heisman front-runner for an eighth straight week. The gambling site Bovada has the odds of him winning at 4-to-9. Henry has the fifth-best odds of anyone at 14-to-1.
Henry might be overlooked by many, but don’t group LSU’s defenders into that mix.
“He’s a big, physical back,” linebacker Deion Jones said. “He gets after it.”
LSU ranks sixth nationally in stopping the run. No running back has run for more than 66 yards against the Tigers this season — a stunning figure that illustrates the type of seasons being had by linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Deion Jones.
The two on Monday made a list of 10 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s best linebacker.
They’re well aware of their impending challenge. Beckwith weighs only about 8 pounds more than Henry. What’s that mean?
“Make sure you wrap up and come with it. You’ve got to bring a little heat behind you,” the linebacker said.
Practicing against Fournette helps prepare for Henry, right? Well, sure, but the Tigers don’t get that opportunity often, Beckwith indicated during interviews last week.
“It’s been a while since I’ve tackled Leonard,” he said. “It’ll definitely have us ready. When you’re on my side of the ball playing linebacker, you look forward to things like that.”
Coker has seen Henry play all season.
“When you see him run on the field, it’s a lot different than seeing him on TV, I can tell you that,” he said. “Some of those plays when I see him just punish people, I’ll just sit back there and (be like) ‘God, I feel bad for that guy.’”
LSU’s defense is ranked sixth nationally in run defense this season ahead of a game against Alabama RB Derrick Henry,?12th nationally in rushing yards. Here are the best running back performances in each game against the Tigers this season and how Henry stacks up:
Average per carry
Alabama’s Derrick Henry
*running backs only