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January 4, 2014

A 'dream comes true' for Alabama RB Derrick Henry

NEW ORLEANS | Between high fives and helmet slaps on his walk from the end zone, true freshman Derrick Henry stole a glimpse at the Superdome's jumbotron to watch his 61-yard touchdown.

His performance in Thursday's Sugar Bowl may be the only part Alabama fans would be willing to watch again. Amid the Crimson Tide's shocking 45-31 loss to Oklahoma, Henry was their 238-pound silver lining, rumbling for 100 rushing yards on eight carries including a 43-yard touchdown run and the 61-yard touchdown catch.

"I was very excited, it's like a dream come true," Henry said following the game. "I've been waiting on this all my life."

Henry's last touchdown catch kept Alabama in the game late, cutting the Sooners' lead to 31-24 with less than seven minutes to play. He averaged 17.9 yards per touch on the night.

It was impressive work from a player who hadn't been a significant part of Alabama's offense in 2013. Henry logged just 28 carries in mop-up duty after the regular season and did not get a carry in three of Alabama's last four games. Sophomore Kenyan Drake took the No. 2 carries behind starter T.J. Yeldon for most of the season.

Henry said the lack of playing time early in the year was a product of his transition from high school to college.

"Just being frustrated, not understanding," Henry said about the toughest part about not playing. "Being a college back, there's more to it. Blitz pickup, you've got to make reads, you've got to be disciplined. Little things are important being a (running) back, you've got to be focused more to be in the game so that's what I didn't do. "I thought everything would be handed to me but it's a different level here than in high school and I think over time, as the season went on, I got better."

Good enough, in fact, for Alabama coach Nick Saban to promote Henry ahead of Drake during bowl practices.

"Actually we decided that (Henry) was our second best back going into this game, and we were going to give him an opportunity based on his performance in practice and what he had done and the confidence that he had gained throughout the course of the season in terms of knowing what to do and playing fast," Saban said. "And certainly had an outstanding game (Thursday) and did a really good job for us, and I think he has a bright future." Henry's work gives plenty of room for optimism entering 2014 as Yeldon, Drake and Henry will return to the backfield.

A four-star prospect out of Yulee, Fla., Henry rushed for 4,261 yards as a senior and set the national high school record for rushing yards with 12,124. This season, he racked up 36 carries for 382 yards, a 10.6 yard-per-carry average.

All of that, and a big game on Thursday, likely means there will be more jumbotron watching in Henry's future.

"Keep working hard, never be complacent, just keep striving forward," Henry said. "There's still a lot I've got to learn. I think there's opportunity but it's time to get to work. The season never stops for us. Like they always say, we live it, and I'm excited to get back to work."

Notable: Drake, the former No. 2 running back who hasn't received a carry in the last six quarters, declined to speak to reporters following the game on Thursday but took to Twitter to discuss his situation. Drake denied Internet speculation that he would seek a transfer via Twitter following the game and again on Friday.

"I'm not goin anywhere. Miss me with all this transferring mess. Much love to all my teammates and coaches. We coin big things next season," Drake tweeted on Friday.

On Saturday, Drake explained his situation further in a series of tweets.

"I'm not a bad kid I just don't make the best decisions sometimes but what kid let alone an adult isn't a victim to bad decision making. And in addition, these stories about me disrespecting a coach that resulted in my playing time being reduced is complete fabrication. This has been a great season for me and my teammates that didn't end on such a high note but champions never stay down on the mat!"

Drake rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns this season.

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Reach D.C. Reeves at DC.Reeves@tuscaloosanews.com or 205.722.0196.

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