NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A quick search can turn up viral footage of Tennessee Titans taking Derrick Henry back from his Yulee High School days and running through defenders like the Incredible Hulk plowing through baddies.
Although Henry has rushed for more yards (12,124) than any other high school football player to date, he remembers something most people want to forget.
“I’m still motivated by stuff in high school,” Henry said. “They said I wouldn’t make it that far in that position. Usually guys that are big and play running back in high school become edge rushers or get put on defense.”
But not the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry.
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But that’s exactly what makes the 28-year-old so great. He’s always looking for something that gives him that extra motivation.
It’s also a big reason why he made a great comeback after a Jones fracture in his right foot that caused him to miss the last nine games of the regular season last year.
Henry led the NFL with 937 rushing yards when he sustained the injury in a Week 8 road win against the Indianapolis Colts. He made it back to lose the division playoffs to the Cincinnati Bengals — where he rushed for 62 yards on 20 carries.
There were doubts early in the season that Henry could return to his leading form in the league. And Henry, who won the rushing title in 2019 (1,540 yards) and 2020 (2,027 yards), isn’t usually bothered by outside noise.
But this time it was different, because Henry reported to the training camp with a chip on his shoulder.
“Someone could motivate me and wouldn’t even know,” Henry said at the start of the camp. “The doubters, whatever they want to be, I’m definitely motivated. I’m ready to go So we’ll see.”
Henry and the Titans (6-3) will have their next Test on the road against the Green Bay Packers (4-6) Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) at Lambeau Field.
If Henry can have the quick success others have against the Packers defense, whose 140.6 yards per game allowable is 27th, it could help the AFC South-leading Titans win their seventh of their last eight games .
“You just don’t find guys that big and fast, and when he gets going, it’s going to be a long day,” said Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who worked with Henry as the Titans’ offensive coordinator in 2018 before taking over in Green Bay in the year 2019. “Derrick is unique. He’s a guy who can wear you down, and often. He gets stronger as the game progresses.”
Given the results Henry has had this season, he should have old-school hip-hop artist Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now” playing whenever he takes the field.
Despite a slow start, with Henry rushing for 107 yards in the Titans’ 2-0 season-opener start, Henry’s 923 total rushing yards is second only to the New York Giants, who run Saquon Barkley’s 931 en route in Week 11 , and his nine rushing touchdowns, tied with Jamaal Williams behind Nick Chubb’s 11.
Henry turned back the clock in Week 8 when he rushed for 219 yards against the Houston Texans. It was the fourth straight game in which he rushed for 200 yards or more against Houston, setting an NFL record for most 200-yard rushing games by a player against a single team.
The Houston game was a classic high-performance performance by Henry. Veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill injured his ankle the week before, pushing rookie backup Malik Willis into the starting role. Willis attempted 10 passes while Henry carried the ball a season-high 32 times.
Henry already has 202 carries and is on track for his third season of over 300 carries in the last four years.
“His physique probably helps,” said Titans coach Mike Vrabel. “He works extremely hard. He trains hard and prepares. Mentally he’s ready for it too. He wants it. [Running backs coach] tony [Dews] does a good job trying to manage him and where he is. It’s an important part of what we do. He knows he’s going in. He’s getting ready to go.”
Granted, Henry was caught from behind by Texas cornerback Steven Nelson on a 41-yard run, and Kansas City Chiefs defensemen L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie tracked him down on a 56-yard run two weeks ago .
“In Houston, I got caught because he tapped me with his foot and it threw me off stride,” Henry explained. “I had to find my balance in Kansas City. I’ll get caught, don’t worry about it. I’m doing well.”
It should be noted that according to Next Gen Stats, Henry hit 20.6 mph on the 56-yard run and 20.1 mph on the 41-yarder.
There was a different formula in a 17-10 win over the Denver Broncos last week, as Tannehill had a season-high in pass attempts (36), while Henry’s eight carries in the first half was the second time he had eight or fewer carries in one had half this season.
“The first-down production wasn’t [there like it had been] in the previous few weeks – which resulted in us being in more throwing situations,” said offensive coordinator Todd Downing.
“The more carries you give him in a drive, the stronger he gets. So it’s more important to get those third downs to give him more opportunities in those drives.”
Despite being fueled by the doubters in the offseason, Henry isn’t concerned with personal stats. His 53 rushing yards against the Broncos was the fewest he’s gained in a win in the past four seasons.
“I play at a high level and have efficiency that affects the game the way I play – [whether] I have the ball or I don’t have the ball — [it’s about] to be the best teammate I can be,” Henry said last week. “It’s about us just sticking together, having the will and wanting to dominate in every game.”
That team mentality is one of the things Vrabel loves about Henry.
“The difference between this league and our team is that we have Derrick Henry.” said Vrabel in his post-game locker speech after defeating the Texans.
Not every team is lucky enough to have a seventh grade team player who still motivates himself with high school hate in a Marvel Superhero-esque way.