In his final collegiate game, Darrell Henderson gave Memphis a 14-0 lead over undefeated University of Central Florida with two rushing touchdowns in the first three minutes. That included a 62-yard run, which wouldn’t even be his longest of the day. Memphis built a 24-7 lead by the end of the first quarter and then went up 31-14 when Henderson scored from 82 yards out early in the second.
When UCF closed the gap 31-21 late in the first half, Henderson squeezed in a 4-yard touchdown pass just before the break to get the Tigers back up by 17 points.
Unfortunately for Memphis, UCF would stay undefeated as quarterback Darriel Mack Jr ran for four touchdowns in the second half, giving his team a 56-41 lead. But Henderson capped off his college career with 16 carries for 210 yards and three touchdowns, adding that fourth through the air. It was Henderson’s ninth 130+ yard rushing effort of the season, his third with at least 210, and he averaged 8.9 yards per carry for the second year in a row.
With that opportunity to make the jump before anything could stand in his way between him and the NFL, Henderson declared for the draft and he was selected by the Los Angeles Rams with the 70th overall pick. Not only that, but the Rams traded up to secure Henderson. Sean McVay and Les Snead expressed that more than anything, Henderson was the “change of pace” back that they had longed to find over the previous two years but couldn’t secure.
“If you go back to when we signed Lance Dunbar – Sean’s always felt like his offense would be, let’s call it, slightly more explosive when you have a change-of-pace-type running back,” Snead said. “We attempted with Lance Dunbar a couple of years ago, you know, his knee didn’t work out. We thought about doing it in last year’s draft. A couple of enemies chose a few of those change-of-pace backs ahead of us. It’s always been something we’ve been trying to do, obviously, since Sean walked in and felt like it would be a nice complement.”
Snead and McVay envision him contributing as a receiver and a runner, bringing explosiveness with the ability to score from anywhere on the field. He also believes Henderson’s versatility will open the door for more personnel groupings, which the Rams haven’t had many of in the last two years.
“I think, when you get a player like that, too, it enables you to activate some different personnel groupings where you have so much confidence in the guys, especially our receivers when you’re a heavy 11-personnel team,” McVay said. “One of the things that we’ve talked about is being able to provide some different personnel groupings so that you still focus on making sure that Robert (Woods), Brandin (Cooks), Cooper (Kupp) and Josh (Reynolds) are big parts of our offense. But, you don’t want to ask them to play almost every single snap over the course of a 16-game season and then hopefully after that. Being able to give somebody a chance to come in and provide a different threat is exactly what we identified. He was kind of one of those guys that stood out for us, so we’re excited about getting him here.”
But there wasn’t much “change of pace” about Henderson’s rookie season and now that Todd Gurley is with the Atlanta Falcons, it’s clear that the team is focused on either Henderson or rookie Cam Akers or both as the next in line to carry the load. What it came to 2019, Malcolm Brown instead served as the first complement to Gurley.
When Henderson did play, however, he at least wasn’t much worse than his counterparts.
In Week 6, Henderson gets his first “extensive” action, rushing six times for 39 yards against the San Francisco 49ers. Brown, who started the game in place of Gurley, carried it 11 times for 40 yards. In this case, Henderson was LA’s best back. He also caught one pass for nine yards. Brown only had two receptions all season.
The following week, Gurley is back and he carries it 18 times for 41 yards, catching one pass for 13 yards — a touchdown — against the Atlanta Falcons. Henderson gets a career-high 11 carries and gains 31 yards, catching one pass for eight yards. Against his future team, Gurley averaged 2.3 yards per carry compared to 2.8 for Henderson.
Then in Week 8 versus the Cincinnati Bengals, Henderson carries it 11 more times, gaining a career-best 49 yards. He also has two receptions for 20 yards. Gurley has 10 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown, no receptions.
It isn’t until Week 9 that Henderson plays and fails to play up to or better than Gurley. He has four carries for four yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whereas Gruley has 12 for 73, though he fumbles. That being said, Brown struggled too, carrying it five times for 10 yards. Henderson got six more carries all season, ending the year on injured reserve.
All told, Henderson’s 3.77 yards per carry was right in line with Gurley and Brown. By DVOA, Brown actually had a higher efficiency rating than Gurley, whereas Henderson was quite low albeit on an even tinier sample size than the number two back. The Rams now turn the reins over to Akers, most likely, but drafting Henderson at pick 70 and Akers at pick 52 is not exactly some monumental difference in faith.
That being said, the fact that Henderson couldn’t get and stay ahead of Brown coupled with the selection of a running back on day two at all signals that McVay and Snead may indeed have to claim Henderson as nothing more than a “change of pace” back. If the entire running backs room is struggling, someone will need to buck that trend if the Rams are going to be a potent offense once again.