December 10, 2001
Get Ur Neat Freak On
by Keith Weiland
John Henderson decided to stay for his senior season at Tennessee because something just wasn’t right. For this self-described "neat freak" who lists cleaning atop his list of hobbies, his college football resume was untidy without a National Championship. Henderson, technically a part of the 1998 Volunteers squad that won the big title, was denied a ring because of an NCAA rule prohibiting postseason rewards for partial academic qualifiers.
It is a blemish that Henderson intended to sanitize by returning this year. But thanks to Saturday’s Southeastern Conference Championship loss to Louisiana State, in which his Vols became the latest team to squander a shot at meeting Miami in the Rose Bowl on January 3, Henderson was forced to put that National Championship ammonia back on the collegiate shelf one final time.
Henderson vaulted himself into the national spotlight in 2000 with 12 sacks and an Outland Trophy, the award handed out to the nation’s top interior lineman. (Miami’s Bryant McKinnie was awarded the honor last week for his 2001 season.) Thought by many to bolt for the NFL as a mid-first round pick last April to support his family, Henderson shocked them all by returning for his senior season.
Henderson became an early favorite as the first pick in the 2002 draft, thanks to his impressive physical attributes – Henderson stands tall at 6’6" and almost 300 pounds – as well as his tremendous fan and media support following the decision. It is what has happened in the months since last April that no longer makes him the lead horse in what is now a wide-open race to the finish.
With high expectations surrounding him, Henderson started off his 2001 campaign on a bad foot, or more specifically, ankle. The injury, which he suffered in Tennessee’s first game against Syracuse, slowed Henderson down to the point where scouts no longer saw him as the same dominating force he was a year ago. Double-teamed much of the time prior to the sprain, opposing teams also noticed Henderson’s lack of mobility in trying to play through the injury. As a result, they experienced adequate success putting just one blocker on him.
Henderson struggled with the injury for almost two months before breaking out in a game against Alabama with nine tackles, signaling his return to health. His prior performance, however, may have irreparably damaged his draft stock, as some experts still fear his inconsistent level of play.
Might that be to the Texans’ advantage if they trade down a few spots and still find Henderson on the board? It is easy to underestimate the effects of such an injury, especially one that can affect a lineman’s ability to use his strength to gain leverage on opponents. If the Henderson of 2000 returns to form on the NFL playing field, the team’s lap into which he falls will be quite pleased with their fortune.
On the flip side of that argument, it is imperative that football players learn to play through nagging injuries and still maintain a dominating level of play. As a player who should one day anchor a defensive line in the league, showing up on every down is something of a prerequisite for success.
So what does Henderson bring to a defense when he does play? Most importantly, he brings an ability to create pressure and collapse a quarterback’s pocket, something he did on several occasions Saturday against LSU, though none of it will show up in the stat sheet. When he plays low, Henderson is able to use his impressive strength and good quickness to blow past offensive linemen.
Though Henderson’s been compared to former Tennessee standout Reggie White on his ability, he looks up to Bronco middle linebacker, and former Vol, Al Wilson for leadership techniques. Henderson had a temper as a youth, but today he is usually reserved until the situation calls for him to make some noise.
”If the team is down, he’s the one that’s going to pick us up, just like Al Wilson did,” running back Travis Stephens once said of Henderson. ”He tends to knock down trash cans, throw stuff, and get you pumped up.”
Among Henderson’s apparent weaknesses is a lack of refined technique to dominate when size and strength aren’t enough. He will need to learn how to better shed an NFL blocker able to match up with him physically. Henderson also needs the endurance, be it mental or physical, to maintain intensity for an entire game. In addition to his high ankle sprain, which should heal with rest, there may also be an injury concern with his back, too. With a nice layoff between his bowl game and the combines, Henderson figures to get healthy enough to reassert himself as a top 3 draft pick.
On which side will GM Charley Casserly and head coach Dom Capers fall? Capers said he will favor playing a 3-4 defense, assuming he has the right personnel in place. Tennessee’s defense has experimented with a 3-4 alignment at times, and Henderson has lined up as nose tackle in such situations. It is unclear whether Henderson would fill that role on the defense if the Texans select him, but it is evident that Henderson’s ability and size would work at any position on the D-line. With some concerns emerging on whether North Carolina’s Julius Peppers would be a good fit in Capers’ defense, Henderson may be a logical selection for Houston’s defensive-minded coach.
After learning that Wendell Bryant takes out the trash for his mom and that John Henderson lists cleaning as a hobby, Keith Weiland has to believe Reliant Stadium would keep that "new-stadium smell" for years to come if the Texans somehow found a way to draft both of those defensive linemen. John Henderson Home