Fueled by high school haters, Titans' Derrick Henry back among rushing leaders

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A quick search can yield viral footage of Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry from his Yulee High School days, running through defenders like the Incredible Hulk plowing through bad guys.

Despite rushing for more yards (12,124) than any other high school football player to that point, Henry remembers something most people would want to forget.

"I still get motivated from stuff back in high school," Henry said. "They said I wouldn't make it this far at this position. Usually, guys who are big and play running back in high school turn into edge rushers or get put on defense."

But not the 6-foot-3, 247 pound Henry.

That's what makes 28-year-old so great. He's always looking for something to give him that extra motivation.

It's also a big reason he has made a tremendous comeback from a Jones fracture in his right foot that caused him to miss the final nine regular-season games last year.

Henry was leading the NFL with 937 rushing yards when he suffered the injury in a Week 8 road win over the Indianapolis Colts. He made it back for the divisional playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals -- when he rushed for 62 yards on 20 carries.

Entering the season, there were doubts that Henry could return to his league-leading form. And Henry, who won the rushing title in 2019 (1,540 yards) and 2020 (2,027 yards), normally doesn't bother with outside noise.

But this time it was different, as Henry reported to training camp with a chip on his shoulder.

"Someone could motivate me and wouldn't even know it," Henry said at the start of camp. "The doubters, whatever they want to be, I am definitely motivated. I'm ready to go. So we going to see."

Henry and the Titans (6-3) will get their next test on the road against the Green Bay Packers (4-6) on Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) at Lambeau Field.

If Henry can have the rushing success others have against the Packers' defense, whose 140.6 yards allowed per game on the ground ranks 27th, it could help the AFC South-leading Titans win their seventh out of the past eight games.

"You just don't find guys that are that big and that fast, and if 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 2019. "Derrick is one of a kind. He is a guy that can wear you down, and a lot of times. he gets stronger as the game goes on."

Given the results Henry has generated 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, where Henry rushed for 107 yards in the Titans' 0-2 start to open the season, Henry's 923 total rushing yards are second to New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley's 931 heading into Week 11, and his nine rushing touchdowns are tied for second 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 consecutive game in which he rushed for 200 or more yards against Houston, setting an NFL record for most 200-yard rushing games by one player against a single team.

The Houston game was a classic heavy-workload performance by Henry. Veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill injured his ankle the week before, so rookie backup Malik Willis was thrust 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 pace for his third 300-plus carry season in the last four years.

"His physical stature probably helps," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "He works extremely hard. He trains hard and prepares. Mentally he is ready for it as well. He wants it. [Running backs coach] Tony [Dews] does a good job of trying to manage him and where he is at. He is an important part of what we do. He knows that going in. He gets himself ready to go."

Granted, Henry got caught from behind by Texans cornerback Steven Nelson on a 41-yard run, and Kansas City Chiefs defensive backs 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 my foot and that broke my stride," Henry explained. "In Kansas City, I had to re-catch my balance. Me getting caught, don't worry about that. I'm fine."

It should be noted that Henry reached 20.6 mph, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, on the 56-yard run and 20.1 mph on the 41-yarder.

Last week saw a different formula in a 17-10 win over the Denver Broncos, as Tannehill had a season high in passing attempts (36), while Henry's eight carries in the first half marked the second time he had eight or fewer carries in a half this season.

"The first-down production wasn't [there like it had been] in the previous weeks -- which caused us to be in more throwing situations," offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. "Not converting some of those early third downs took away from getting into a rhythm in those drives.

"The more carries you give him in a drive, the stronger he gets. So that's why it's more important to pick up those third downs to get him more opportunities within those drives."

Although Henry was fueled by the doubters in the offseason, he is not concerned with personal statistics. His 53 yards rushing yards against the Broncos were the fewest he's gained in a win in the last four seasons.

"Me playing at a high level and having efficiency affecting the game the way I play -- [whether] I have the ball or I don't have the ball -- [it's about] being the best teammate I can be," Henry said last week. "It's about us being just tied together, having the will and wanting to dominate in each game."

That team mindset is one of the things that Vrabel loves about Henry.

"The difference between this league and our team is we got Derrick Henry," Vrabel said in his postgame locker speech after beating the Texans.

Every team isn't lucky enough to have a team player in Year 7 still motivating himself in a Marvel superhero-like fashion with hate from high school.