IRVINE, Calif. (AP) — When Darrell Henderson found out fellow Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers had torn his Achilles tendon recently, the news hit too close to home.
“I never want to see a player get hurt. And me coming off two ankle surgeries, it’s just horrible. When I heard that, I immediately looked down at my ankle. It just reminds me of that,” Henderson said Friday.
With Akers out for the season, it creates an opportunity for Henderson to become the featured every-down back, something coach Sean McVay believes he is more than capable of doing in his third season. In McVay’s mind, it comes down to making sure Henderson is healthy enough to fill that role.
After each of Henderson’s first two years in the NFL ended prematurely because of ankle injuries, McVay has repeatedly stressed the need to manage the former Memphis rusher through a 17-game regular season and the deep playoff run the Rams expect to make.
“I think he’s got the ability, there’s no doubt about it. It’s really just kind of figuring out what’s going to be the best — I don’t want to say pitch count, but the best way to utilize him and really have the big picture in mind,” McVay said.
Henderson appreciates the sentiment. He just isn’t sure it is feasible given the demands of the position.
“At this position there’s no way to prevent injuries,” Henderson said. “You get hit every play. It’s just a physical position to play and you got to be ready for it.”
There is also the question of whether McVay’s intentions are practical considering who else the Rams have. The other four running backs on the roster in training camp have never had a carry or caught a pass in a regular season game.
Henderson rushed for 624 yards and five touchdowns last season with at least 10 attempts in seven games, including a career-high 20 for 114 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo. He was reliable as a receiver with 16 grabs for 159 yards and a touchdown, and McVay seems to be more than comfortable with Henderson’s abilities in pass protection.
“He’s stout. I mean, Darrell is really sturdy. He’s fearless, he’s tough. He’ll put his face on people. There isn’t anything that we don’t feel like Darrell isn’t capable of doing from a skill set (standpoint),” McVay said.
Henderson also has a stark edge in his familiarity with McVay’s offense and recognition of what it takes to succeed at this level. Being around Todd Gurley for one season and steady veteran Malcolm Brown for two years gave Henderson an understanding he has to approach every day as if he is fighting to be the starter, even if Akers was not hurt.
“It’s all about competition,” Henderson said. “We all want to get our chance. It’s just if you can take advantage of the opportunity.”
Akers did just that last season, closing out his rookie season with 424 yards rushing in his final five games and adding 221 yards in two playoff games.
Henderson shined early on in the tumultuous 2020 campaign, and McVay cites those flourishes as the reason he can thrive in Akers’ absence.
“You look at last year, kind of just worked itself out where he and Cam were never really healthy at the same time,” McVay said. “But when Cam wasn’t in there, Darrell did a great job of leading the way really kind of through the first eight weeks of the season. Then Darrell kind of got banged up, and that kind of represented where Cam really started to hit his stride.”
But even as McVay praised Henderson, it came with the caveat that he has to be available this season to help the Rams meet their lofty goals.
“When he’s been out there, he’s done a lot of really good things, and (I) expect that from him this year,” McVay said.
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