Group of 5 Spotlight: Local Product Darrell Henderson Becoming a Star for Memphis; Akron's Historic Win

The nation's leading rusher Henderson is flourishing not far from his home

About 7,500 people reside in Batesville, a town roughly an hour from Memphis. Darrell Henderson, college football's leading rusher through three weeks, hails from this small, Mississippi town — precisely the kind of place that helps shape the identity of the Memphis Tigers.

 

"For everybody down here, you gotta work for whatever you want," Henderson said.

 

Such is the mentality fueling Henderson's remarkable start to 2018. The redshirt junior leads the nation in total rushing yards (521); rushing yards per game (173.7); and ranks second in rushing touchdowns (6). His nearest competition in every category — whether it's No. 2 overall rusher Jonathan Taylor, or touchdown-leader Devin Singeltary — has seen considerably more touches at this juncture in the season.

 

Hence at 36 carries, Henderson's pace-setting numbers are all the more staggering. He's improved on an average of 8.9 yards per carry a season ago, that was good enough for third in the nation, by almost half-a-first down to 14.5.

 

"For those who haven’t seen Darrell run, be prepared to enjoy a tailback that will find ways to impress you," Tigers beat writer Evan Barnes of the Commercial Appeal explains. "With his speed, power, great hands and stellar footwork, he’s a complete running back who takes advantage of a great offensive line giving him room to roll."

 

Henderson is as quick to deflect individual credit for his success as he is to burst through to daylight on a run. He attributed his improved individual stats to an all-around improved offense, with tenacious blocking both from the offensive line and wide receivers.

 

Pressed on what he's done individually, Henderson said, "I work my tail off every day."

 

And in that reflects the personalities of the communities that Memphis head coach Mike Norvell said he and his staff, "love to recruit," and that contribute to the overall identity of this Tigers team.

 

"The toughness, the understanding of what it takes to be successful. These kids come in and know what it is to work. There are certain places that are out there that don't have that engrained in them at an early age," Norvell said. "These kids come in here and they're hungry."

 

Forty-nine Tigers hail from either Memphis and its surrounding communities, or northern Mississippi. The Batesville native, Henderson has demonstrated his hunger, both on game days and in the months of preparation leading up to the season. He could have been content with replicating his 2017 numbers, which were quite impressive: 1,154 rushing yards, nine touchdowns, and another 226 yards and two scores on 24 receptions.

 

Those are great numbers. Henderson continued to push himself and is now putting up transcendent numbers.

 

"He's gained 15-20 pounds of muscle [while] he's maintained his speed," Norvell explained. "When he gets the opportunity to go one-on-one with a safety, he's making the most of it. That's why when he gets in the open field, and utilizing his speed, he has the chance to make those explosive plays."

 

With six rushes of 50 or more yards, Memphis leads the nation — and has doubled the output of the next-most prolific offense in that same category, Georgia. In addition to long runs, Henderson also has a 62-yard touchdown reception on the season.

 

But the play that Barnes explained was the most wow-moment of Henderson's highlight-reel-filled first three games came on a 78-yard touchdown run Week 2 against Navy.

 

"Not only did he shake off two tacklers, he was able to get outside and find daylight behind several blockers," Barnes wrote in an email. "He didn’t look like he was running full speed but he showed how strong and elusive he is in space."

 

"On the sideline, [offensive lineman] Trevon Tate, No. 72, on the strech play, as long as we run that, he said, 'I'm gonna kick out,'" Henderson explained. "On that play, he kicked [the Navy defender on the edge] out, and I trusted my read.

 

"They did a good job blocking down the field," Henderson adds.

 

 

So, is that Henderson's favorite carry of the 2018 season?

 

"Really, with the offensive line I've got, I like every run I get," he laughed.

 

With his offensive line making holes and Henderson finding them, the running back is on pace to cruise past 2,000 yards by the end of the regular season. While players from outside the Power 5 conferences have had difficulty gaining the attention of Heisman Trophy voters, the Memphis running back continuing near his astronomic start would be too much to ignore.

 

"If God wants me to achieve that, He'll put me in the situation," Henderson said when asked about college football's premier individual honor.

 

Batesville, Mississippi, to New York City — that would be the most impressive run Darrell Henderson could make in 2018.

 

Alvin and The Pick-Offs

When Akron last beat an opponent that today counts itself among the ranks of the Big Ten Conference, college football was still more than a decade from legalizing the forward pass.

 

After Saturday's result, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald might side with Walter Camp's opposition to the aerial play.

 

A pair of pick-sixes by cornerback Alvin Davis keyed a 36-13 second half for the Zips, en route to a 39-34 defeat of Northwestern, the program's first win against a current Big Ten member since 1894. Known then as Buchtel College with coach and quarterback John Heisman — yes, that Heisman — the "Zippers" beat Ohio State, 12-6.

 

For his efforts in a win more than a century-and-a-quarter in the making, Davis earned the Bronko Nagurski Award National Defensive Player of the Week.

 

 

Fast-forward 100 years to 1994, and Akron head coach Terry Bowden, then at Auburn, was party to a 30-26 defeat of LSU in which the Tigers won without scoring a single offensive touchdown.

 

"We had three interceptions go for touchdowns. We had a fumble, just like Saturday, roll into the end zone. I think we had six first downs," he said. "I think it's the most watched game on ESPN Classic."

 

It's known, quite literally, as The Interception Game.

 

 

Even for it's historic significance, it didn't include an individual effort on par with that of Davis.

 

"It only comes once or twice in a career," Bowden said. "I've had 25 years as a head coach, and to have a guy like Alvin Davis go out there and have a 97-yard interception return and a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown, and then a fumble in the end zone (recovered for a touchdown by Ulysees Gilbert III)? It doesn't happen very often."

 

If it's anything like the mangitude of Akron beating a Big Ten member, it may be another 124 years before we see a similar performance.

 

Bringing It vs. Power 5

Terry Bowden offered an assessment of Akron's win against Northwestern that unintenionally summarized the magnitude not only of the Zips' win, but of a day rife with Group of 5 wins against Power 5 competition.

 

"It's hard enough when you play a team that's a three-touchdown favorite, that's a Power 5 school, and the cards are stacked against us Mid-American Conference schools just by budgets and scholarship players, and all those things they get," he said. "And so you have to make your kids believe they can win." 

 

Such is the ethos behind the MAC Jolly Roger, which Eastern Michigan flew after beating Purdue in Week 2, and that Akron hoisted after last week's victory.

 

 

Believing isn't so far-fetched when, as Bowden noted, "each week, someone in the MAC is going to pull something off."

 

And it's not just the MAC. Every Group of 5 conference scored at least one win against Power 5 competition on Saturday.

 

American

South Florida rallied from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter against Illinois to win 24-19 on quarterback Blake Barnett's 50-yard touchdown throw to Darnell Solomon.

 

 

The Bulls' come-from-behind victory at Soldier Field improved Charlie Strong's bunch to 3-0, with back-to-back successful rallies against Power 5 competition. In Week 2, USF beat ACC member Georgia Tech.

 

Earlier in the day, the "Power 6" conference added another stake to its claim against the Big Ten when Temple routed Maryland, 35-14. The Owls stifled the Terps offense, allowing just 195 yards.

 

Conference USA

North Texas' Keegan Brewer's 90-yard punt returned for a touchdown against Arkansas has been the talk of college football, and with good reason.

 

 

 

Brewer's score added a special teams win in what was a thorough deconstruction of the SEC's Arkansas Razorbacks by defending Conference USA West champion North Texas. The Mean Green offense continued its early-season dominance, even with standout quarterback Mason Fine having what would qualify as an off-day: 24-of-45 for 281 yards.

 

The North Texas defense really showed out, snagging six interceptions as a team, and LaDarius Hamilton coming up with two of the Mean Green's five sacks.

 

MAC

Akron's win at Northwestern marked the second time the MAC raised the Jolly Roger in Big Ten Country. The Zips were scheduled to play another Big Ten West team in Week 1, Nebraska, but weather led to a cancellation.

 

Akron will instead have to settle for notching a possible Big 12 victory this week when it travels to Iowa State.

 

Mountain West

The Mountain West scored a trifecta of wins against the Pac-12 on Saturday, the third and final of which marked a spoiled homecoming (and brief stay in the Top 25) for new Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards. San Diego State's 28-21 win over the Sun Devils made it three consecutive seasons in which the Aztecs have beaten at least one Power 5 program.

 

Two hours north in Pasadena, San Diego State's West Division counterpart Fresno State put a hurt on UCLA, 38-14.

 

Kicking off a big night for the Mountain West against Pac-12 opponents, Nevada withstood a late rally effort from Oregon State in a 39-37 win. Oh, and how about that Turnover Towel, the most tongue-in-cheek take on the sideline swag phenomenon?

 

 

Sun Belt 

A year ago, it was LSU. In Week 3, Nebraska became the latest high-profile program to lose to Neal Brown's Troy Trojans.

 

Keying what Brown called Troy's "best defensive performance of the year" was Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week Tron Folsom. The linebacker made 14 tackles, including two for a loss and a sack. Troy also boasts the Special Teams Player of the Week in punter Tyler Sumpter, whose efforts included a 79-yard boot.

 

Get a load of this beauty.

 

 

Week 4 features two especially noteworthy possibilities for marquee Group of 5 wins against Power 5 opponents. Sutton Smith — the nation's leader in sacks a season ago, and tied for No. 15 this season with three — leads Northern Illinois against Florida State in a rematch of the 2013 Orange Bowl. Florida State's offensive line play has been woeful through three weeks, allowing 10 sacks (tied for ninth most in college football).

 

Another ACC member, NC State, travels to Marshall. Both teams had their Week 3 games cancelled due to Hurricane Florence. Head coach Doc Holliday has an intriguing dark horse in the C-USA East race this season, building off a strong finish to 2017.

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of TheOpenMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

 

(Top photo by Joe Murphy/University of Memphis)

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