ALMA — When Ben Henley looked up, he couldn’t believe the wide-open field ahead of him on Friday night.
“It’s supposed to get three or four yards, and it just opened up and I was gone,” Henley said. “I was aiming for the gap, and it opened right up. I couldn’t have asked for a better hole.”
Henley’s 56-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-one capped Alma’s opening drive of the second half and had the Airedales breathing some life again against Van Buren.
“I was really nervous,” Henley said. “I’m just going to do what I was coached to do. I just remembered them telling me what my jobs are and how to do them.”
Friday was the first varsity start for Henley, and the senior finished with 12 carries for 109 yards and the touchdown jaunt.
“It was really exciting,” Henley said. “I played special teams my sophomore and junior years, but not really running back. I got my chance, and I had to make the most of it.”
Henley found out just minutes before the game that he would start when offensive coordinator Greg Kendrick told him.
“He just said get ready,” Henley said. “That’s all he said.”
Up until this season, Henley was kind of a player without a position. He was more of a slotback receiver and played on special teams.
“Ben this time last year was a slot receiver,” Alma head coach Doug Loughridge. “We made the change about halfway through last year. We started noticing him on scout team and JV playing tailback.”
There was a problem, however. Henley suffered from an age-old problem that befalls a lot of potential running backs; holding on to the football.
“One of his problems was ball security,” Loughridge said. “We really, really harped on him during fall camp. We don’t allow him to take his hand off the ball.”
Through hard work and determination, and coaching, Henley overcame the problem.
“Ben had some issues early of putting the ball on the ground,” Kendrick said. “We challenged him, and he’s accepted that challenge. You see him running with two hands on the ball, running hard and finishing runs downhill. Through some controversy early, he’s overcame it and succeeded. Watching him mature and grow and succeed with what we’ve challenged him to do and embrace that challenge has been real encouraging for us as a coaching staff. The fruit and rewards of that hard work paid off for him Friday night.”
In addition to holding on to the football, he also had to overcome another common tendency for running backs.
“That, and having the vision of a tailback,” Loughridge said. “He wanted to bounce it. Once he started figuring that out, he’s a guy that needs to get downhill and follow the blocker. I don’t care if he had to put his facemask in the back of the tackle, he’s got to stay inside. When he started seeing those lanes, he realized that he’s going to get more yards going vertical than horizontal. He did.”
Henley also excelled in other areas on Friday.
‘We can tell what he did on the stats, but what you don’t see is the two knockdown blocks he had early in the game on pass protection,” Loughridge said. “He blocked on screens. The non-stat plays were just as impressive as what he had for yardage.”
Henley has no doubts that the Airedales will put last week behind them and move on.
“We just have to keep doing what the coaches tell us to do and keep training,” Henley said.