by Jeff Barlis
The setting sun finally dips below the treeline, and an officials’ timeout gives everyone in the east stands a chance to collect themselves late in the first quarter.
The spotter in the public address announcer’s box atop the bleachers at Yulee, Fla., High School walks over to a reporter from Gainesville, Fla., and says with a wry grin, “It’s not over.”
Sure, he is wearing a Gator hat, but he’s watched just about every hand-off Derrick Henry has ever taken on that field.
He knows Derrick Henry.
On the first drive, Henry has nine carries for 47 yards and a touchdown, the first points in a contest between the Yulee Hornets and Gainesville Hurricanes. Henry carries the ball on nine of Yulee’s first 11 snaps. He is the Hornet offense.
He’s 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds of long, lean power, crashing into linemen and linebackers, finding seams in the defense when he can, running up the middle and occasionally bouncing the play out wide where he can punish tiny defensive backs for even trying to tackle him.
Henry is one of the elite athletes in the nation, regardless of class, and he’s showing why on this season-opening Friday night.
The spotter explains his initial statement.
“He got too excited up in Athens,” he says. “You’ll see. He’s gonna be a Gator.”
Henry, like the Yulee spotter, is a big Gator fan. Thus the certainty. But there is also plenty of confusion in the Gator Nation.
When Henry committed to Georgia at Dawg Nite on July 15 it surprised everyone, even his high school coach.
Everyone knew he was a Florida fan. He tuned into UF’s spring game on TV, said he was excited about the new pro-style offense and glowed about his chances to play in it.
Yulee Hornets head coach Bobby Ramsey attempted to make sense of the move when the two visited Gainesville for Friday Night Lights one week after Dawg Nite.
“I will say I do think he wanted to slow some things down,” Ramsey said. “Take that for what you will.”
Ramsay didn’t want to speak for his star tailback that night, but Henry had gone quiet after Dawg Nite. Until last Friday.
The game was a see-saw affair through three quarters. At the half, Henry had 18 carries, 125 yards and two touchdowns, including a 67-yard romp down the home sideline during which he brushed off a cornerback with ease. Gainesville adjusted during halftime, shifted some personnel and contained Henry in the second half. He finished with 181 yards on 32 carries in a 35-20 loss.
After a team meeting and some comments about the game he was ready once again to talk about recruiting, and about Florida.
“Oh yeah, I’m still considering them,” he said. “They’ve been recruiting me since the ninth grade. I’m a fan of the Gators, always wanted to play for them.
“I’m committed, but my options are still open. You only get this chance once. I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Henry said he will be at the Florida-Alabama game for an unofficial visit on Oct. 1 and plans to take in a Georgia game this season as well. He tried to explain where his heart and his head are, with Florida and Georgia on his mind.
For Gator fans like the Yulee spotter, Henry is at the center of a compelling yarn. “There’s a long way to go,” so many of them say.
But when it comes to making the big business decision of where to go to college, a prospect’s favorite team growing up often matters little.
Or does it?
Tim Tebow, he of the Gator mailbox and Danny Wuerffel poster in his bedroom, may have let emotion play a part in his decision to sign with Florida.
Could Henry still be a Gator at heart?
“Yeah, I’m a Gator fan,” he said. “Been a Gator fan since I was young. Nothing changed with Florida, I just committed to the Georgia Bulldogs. I’m still a Gator fan, still going to root for them. I just committed to another team.”
Clear as mud.
Henry said the decision to give his verbal pledge to Georgia coach Mark Richt was not a rash one. He had given it careful consideration.
“When I committed to Georgia, I knew it was the right decision to do,” he explained. “I like the players and all the staff. It felt like home.”
He said depth charts aren’t a factor at any school.
“Not at all,” Henry said. “I ain’t worried about competition or scared of competition, never been scared of competition.”
Henry said he wanted to commit early so he could focus on his season, on his grades and on tests. “I still have to get to college,” he said.
As Ramsey had foreseen, the effect of Henry’s verbal on his recruitment has been to lessen some of the constraints imposed by so many schools chasing after him. But the top contenders are still in the mix.
“I’m committed, so it’s calmed down a little bit,” Henry said. “Schools are still calling. My options are still open.
“(Florida coaches) said they’d still be recruiting me ’til the end.”
The end of the saga. That would be Feb. 6, 2013 when Henry signs his letter of intent.
Plenty of time for a few more twists and turns.