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What’s it really like to tackle Derrick Henry?

What’s it really like to tackle Derrick Henry?

Derrick Henry’s monster 2019 included 1,540 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. (AP)

Henry never let up, not even against his own team. Although full-contact practices were rare, especially in-season, teammates experienced versions of what opponents did. “It ain’t no joke,” says Bradley, a quarterback who took practice reps in the secondary. “It’s literally like tackling a human being-and-a-half, in a sense. He’s just so massive.”

Adds Zane Cruz, a former Yulee linebacker: “It’s like tackling a freakin’ defensive end” – but one with 4.5 speed.

Coaches, Cox says, would instruct players to refrain from going low on Henry. “But then he starts running full-steam ahead. We had one DB, he said, ‘I’m not gonna tackle him, it’s just not even right. I gotta worry about a game this week.’ ”

This was the final aspect of the Derrick Henry Opponent Experience. So many teenagers were made to look silly. Some, instead, steered clear of the embarrassment. 

“Some of the corners,” Dudzinski says, were “scared to tackle him by themselves. … You could see the little hesitance – like, ‘Ooooh, not jumping in there.’ ”

Lee points to one of Henry’s games against First Coast. “He had one run where he broke about four or five tackles,” he recalls. “Then once he got into the secondary, I always kinda think that one DB said to himself, ‘You know what? Maybe I just let him run on by me.’ ”

Adds Travis Hodge, then the head coach at Fernandina Beach: “If you got him right at the line of scrimmage, or behind the line of scrimmage, [players] would be more aggressive. But the kids knew, when he got to the second level, and it was you and him – all of a sudden, they might trip, or take a [bad] angle, or mis-time their angle.

“They’d make a decision: I got a date with my girlfriend tomorrow. I don’t want to get hurt.”

‘There’s nothing we can do!’

Hodge remembers the second and final time he had to prepare for Henry. He remembers ingesting hours of film. He pored over more than a dozen Yulee games, in search of clues, hints, anything that might allow his overmatched team to slow the freight train. He saw the standard antidotes: Put eight in the box. Ignore the quarterback. And so on. Not much of it worked.

Hodge had joked with his assistants about lining up with 13 players until referees noticed, but decided against that. He had, though, recognized some trends, including a tendency: Henry would often run left when he took a direct snap.

Then he flipped on tape from a game against Gainesville High. He saw Henry take a direct snap. “This linebacker goes to hit him,” Hodge says. “He comes through the hole, he hurdles the kid – and he’s probably 5, 6 feet in the air. He lands, and as soon as his foot hits the ground, he makes a move on another kid and then goes 80 yards.”

Hodge paused the clip. Called his wife. “What am I supposed to do?!” he exclaimed.

No, seriously: “Am I supposed to take the time I normally spend preparing for a game? Or do I just say, ‘You know what, I’m gonna enjoy my wife and kids a little bit more? Because there’s nothing we can do!’ ”

Sure enough, when gameday arrived, Yulee went to the wildcat. Henry took a direct snap. He ran left. “We put a little stunt in, and we get him off track,” Hodge recalls. “He goes to the left, we got people there. Then he backs up and goes to the right. And then makes four people miss and goes 80 yards.

“And my athletic director’s standing behind me. I’m like, ‘What do you want me to do? What do I do?’ ”

‘I feel a little bit better about myself’

Dumbfounded coaches. Demoralized players. That’s what Derrick Henry left in his wake back in Nassau County on his way to Alabama and eventually the NFL. One year, coaches chewed out kids at halftime for missing tackles. The next, they watched the Sugar Bowl and realized Oklahoma couldn’t tackle Henry either.

Nowadays, they all root for him – first and foremost, because he was a likeable kid whose success fosters regional pride. But there’s also a sense of contentment that fills a few of them when Henry gashes the greatest defensive mind in the history of football, then a week later bullies the best safety of the 2010s. When his towering frame and steel-like arms overwhelm pros just like they overwhelmed Average Joes a decade ago. Back then, Casey Thiele, the West Nassau coach, would think to himself: “If we had Division I linebackers, or pro linebackers, we’d definitely be able to stop him.” Now, he realizes: “Well, they don’t stop him either.”

Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.‘ data-reactid=”119″>Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.