It’s a humid day in Nashville, Tenn., and Derrick Henry is playing in a sandbox. While his teammates are competing on the practice field, Henry is swerving around in a coarse pit off to the side of the Tennessee Titans‘ facility. He’s not building sandcastles or filming a shot-for-shot remake of the film classic “Lawrence of Arabia.” Henry, 28, is grinding.
As he continues to work his way back from the Jones fracture in his right foot — an injury that cost him a potential NFL MVP award last season — Henry is digging deep within himself, even as his rehabilitation process has separated him from teammates during practice.
Titans RB Derrick Henry working in sand to prevent his career from sinking
Henry is a unicorn out of the backfield. At 6’3″ and 247 pounds, he’s built like an All-Pro linebacker, which allows him to bounce off similarly sized defenders as he bursts full speed through the trenches. Henry is a tank at his position, but he also has a sports car engine that helps him break away once he crashes through a wall of the competition.
Henry was on a tear through the first eight games of last season, posting 937 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns before the halfway mark of the season. But in that eighth game — against the Indianapolis Colts — Henry broke his foot and was sidelined for the rest of the regular season.
Head coach Mike Vrabel was able to keep the team afloat as he led the squad to a first-place finish in the AFC, winning the NFL Coach of the Year Award in the process. That postseason berth — and subsequent first-round playoff bye — gave Henry enough time to return for another crack at a Super Bowl run. Unfortunately, the Titans and Henry were foiled in his return, as the Cincinnati Bengals — the eventual AFC Champions — upset them in the Divisional Round.
Henry looked rusty in the playoff matchup, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry. He finished the loss with 62 rushing yards and a TD on 20 carries. The running back who had carried the Titans through the first eight games of the season looked like a shell of himself.
That’s why Vrabel and the Titans are doing everything they can to ensure Henry returns to his factory settings. The sand pit is part of a refurbishment plan.
“It’s real, now,” Henry said Thursday. “It gets you tired. I love it. I feel like it gets me in shape. When the guys come over there and join me and run, they see why I’m so tired. I’m always hunched over. It’s just good work.”
Henry’s uncanny size and skill set are a blessing and a curse. The running back has broken several league and franchise records, and he was the first player to ever run for 180 yards in three consecutive games. He was the 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year after he picked up 2,027 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Less than two years later, he’s trying to pick up the pieces of an injury-plagued follow-up campaign, as the years of wear and tear finally caused a painful setback.
So, Henry and the Titans are being smart with his training camp workload. He’s taking part in individual drills with teammates but is working in the sand when the team battles in 11-on-11 work. Henry has bought into this plan because it could help prolong his effectiveness.
“That’s why Coach Vrabel has me on this plan,” Henry said. “So, when it’s time to go, I’m ready to go. When they need me to answer, I’m there to answer. Whether it’s the first quarter, second, third, or fourth, I’m just willing to go out there and make plays and do whatever I can to help the team.”
As with any star player who falls out of view during the season, there’s a tendency to take their talent for granted. Henry was obviously a massive loss for the Titans, but they were somehow able to carry on their winning ways without him.
The running back position is a cruel occupation in the NFL, as backfields are continuously being reworked, and star players are quickly being mitigated. Just ask Todd Gurley, a fellow former NFL Offensive Player of the Year — who entered the league a year before Henry — how quickly a career can change at the position.
Gurley, at just 27, was out of the league last year. He had scored 63 total touchdowns in the previous four seasons combined, despite dealing with lingering knee issues through the final two campaigns. Gurley has yet to sign with a team this offseason, and the rumor mill hasn’t mentioned his name all summer.
The NFL is a fickle business, especially at running back, where Henry is hoping to avoid a similar fate to Gurley.
Henry is signed through the end of the 2023 season. He has no guaranteed money left on his deal, and the Titans could save $12.5 million by parting ways with him next offseason. Henry is battling back, not only for the upcoming season but for his future in Tennessee as well.
While he isn’t playing in the preseason, he is obsessively working on getting himself back into 2020 form.
“When I’m not here, I’m working out,” Henry said. “When I’m here, I’m working out — running — so I’m always trying to be in shape and be ready when that time comes.”
Henry plans to follow the team’s blueprint throughout the remainder of the summer. While he didn’t take any hits during the joint practices with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, the running back does plan to rev up his contact exposure over the next few days. That’s been the norm for Henry over the past few years, even when he wasn’t sidelined in the previous season.
“I usually get some good work in before the season starts — it’s the last week of preseason,” Henry said. “Then, we do a lot of walkthroughs and stuff like that. [Running backs coach Tony Dews] does a good job of making sure that we’re ready — in any type of way, whatever run it is — we’re seeing and getting north and south.”
For now, though, the sand will do. Henry is doing everything he can to rise out of the dunes with a refreshed body and mind. He doesn’t want his career to be swallowed by the injury bug like Boba Fett in Tatooine. So, he’s competing with himself as much as he’s chopping up the sand particles beneath his Nike cleats.
“I feel like it’s good, restricted running,” Henry said. “You really have to dig and get your legs burning. And definitely, if you aren’t in shape, it’s going to get you.”
Henry hopes that the restrictions he and the team are putting on him during the summer will help him unleash his dominance when he’s handed the ball in Week 1 against the New York Giants. If all goes well, Henry should avoid Gurley’s fate and continue running over Nashville defenders for years to come.
But, for now, it’s all about following the plan in place.
“I’m just looking to improve each and every day,” Henry said, “and that’s all you can do as a player.”