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Dallas — As if his game highlights aren't scary enough, it's the raw numbers that are borderline chilling.

They read like battlefield casualty tolls. They were inflicted by Alabama's running back, Derrick Henry, a 6-foot-3, 242-pound cruncher who doesn't punish defenses as much as he re-landscapes them.

Thanks to his blueprint-perfect height, weight, and speed (4.5 seconds in the 40), Henry is straight from the Running Back Manufacturing Plant and looms as Michigan State's most likely nightmare heading into Thursday's Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium, the winner of which wins a ticket to the national championship game.

But again, the numbers. More than statistics, they are documentation of an extraordinary athlete who, no surprise, is custodian of the 2015 Heisman Trophy:

Henry averaged 180 yards per game against ranked teams. As a reminder the Spartans will need to bite hard on their mouth guards tonight, Henry averaged more than 105 yards after initial contact.

He had a mean yardage of 5.9 per carry and had 100 rushes for first downs. Important, that last stat, in explaining who gets what when Alabama's offense needs an instant lift.

An early example of what Henry can do came against Wisconsin, in Alabama's opening game of the season, and interestingly, against a Big Ten team. He had 147 yards and three touchdowns. He had all of 13 carries.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, who might have chosen to shield Henry from any abnormal wear-and-tear Southeastern Conference running backs confront during their weekly crunch fests, doesn't overly worry about Henry's stamina. Henry carried the ball 14 consecutive times (and 46 total) in a November bulldozing of Auburn that saw Henry torment the Tigers to the tune of 271 yards.

The man responsible for this demolition is a 21-year-old junior, born and raised tough in Yulee, Fla., who is not in contexts outside of football particularly colorful.

Henry sat at an interview booth this week on the AT&T field and no manner of questioning appeared to interest or enthuse him. It was a similar story two weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when a campus media conversation became an exercise in which media did most of the talking.

The closest he came to an elaborate or animated answer came on either occasion was when he was asked about Michigan State.

Other than those terms everyone uses when talking about the Spartans — "tough, physical, well-coached" — what might distinguish Michigan State, he was asked?

"Smart," said Henry, who seemed to enjoy a compliment he could genuinely, and maybe a tad creatively, pay Dantonio's team.

But a player who is expected to head for the NFL draft in April — and to the joys of first-round status —would just as soon play football rather than talk football. At least publicly.

It leaves one to observe other aspects of Henry, other facets of a man whose life story (teenage parents, father in and out of prison) has not been mainstream.

What you notice is that he appears — appears — to be more slightly built than his handsome measurements (6-3, 242) and those crash-and-carry, yards-gulping rushes would suggest.

You note also that his one prominent cosmetic feature is his hair. It is braided and swept back, with black locks giving way at the very end to an obviously dyed-and-tied, light-gold bun.

Otherwise, Henry is no showman. He all but yawns during the question-and-answer exercises. His responses are measured, often clipped and pruned to ensure the least labor and yield.

One person Tuesday asked Henry if the Spartans might be considered in any way intimidating, given their defensive front that had been so unmerciful against teams like Ohio State and Iowa?

"Wouldn't say intimidating," Henry answered, carefully, before lapsing into phraseology he found more conventional. "Just got to prepare right for them, because they're good at what they do.

"Very physical. Very destructive. They have a great defense and did a great job this year. So, we have to finish up and be ready for them Thursday."

A different Thursday, for sure. Different in stakes. Different in its psychology and in its construct — a bowl game that in this case doesn't spell the end of a season, but rather, acts as a trigger to a potential grand prize.

Henry gets it.

"The regular season, you have a game, you lose, you play the next week," he said, putting on the analyst's hat. "But this is cut time — I mean, if you don't win, you go home.

"Michigan State is a great team, so we got to make sure we do what we have to do to go out there and win."

Mark Dantonio understands all of this. Not only has the second year of a true college football playoff created a profound change in football's postseason psyche, he appreciates Henry's anxiety, which is shared by coaches.

More than anyone in East Lansing, Dantonio also knows, apart from any statistical reinforcement, of Henry's peril and Alabama's potential edge tonight in football's first task: running the ball.

Preparation can be more conceptual than achievable during these tuneups. But the Spartans have tried.

"We've got to be able to simulate Henry," Dantonio said this week, explaining how the Spartans would at least attempt to prepare for a back so brutal. "That's not easy to do."

Dantonio's answer has been to have his stable of running backs take turns on the scout team. The Spartans know something about big backs, themselves, thanks to L J Scott, Gerald Holmes, Delton Williams, and Madre London. They've even used reserve tight ends in a practice-field bid to throw more beef at a front that will get T-boned plenty tonight by one Derrick Henry.

But this isn't anything new for the Spartans. They've seen Ezekiel Elliott. They've dealt with others who aren't far from the NFL.

It's simply that they won't ever have confronted a man quite like Henry. Or, perhaps more tellingly, like those Crimson Tide sentries who work alongside a marvelously gifted running back.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

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