Jon Cooper | The Good Word
There are times when a freshman, no matter how talented, gets like a deer in headlights when making the transition from high school football to college.
That’s why it’s sometimes better to just turn them loose — and why players as talented and aggressive as linebacker Jaquan Henderson often start their careers on special teams.
Punt and kickoff coverage are where Henderson did his damage as a true freshman in 2017. In 10 games, he recorded six tackles — three on kickoffs, three on punt returns.
He is looking to move up the depth chart heading into 2018 fall camp and following a superb spring. His strong showing in March and April culminated with the spring game, where he started for the victorious Blue team and made five stops (all solo), including a team-high-tying two for loss.
In Georgia Tech’s spring showcase, the Covington, Ga., native and former four-year letterman and two-year captain at Newton High School showed signs that he’ll no longer be frozen in the headlights but be right at home going full-speed into the spotlight. He credited the Yellow Jackets’ new defensive system.
“I think we played pretty fast,” said the 6-1, 197-pounder, who’ll probably be bigger and stronger come fall camp after a summer of working out. “Everybody knew what they were supposed to be doing and were making plays.”
Head coach Paul Johnson believes that simpler is better and that the simpler defensive scheme of first-year defensive coordinator Nate Woody will be easier to digest and a better fit than the Jackets’ previous system.
“I think Jaquan is a really good athlete and last year he was just overwhelmed, trying to figure out all the different schemes and all the different stuff,” said Johnson. “One of the neat things about what we’re doing now is it’s really simple and you can get your guys that can run out there and the athletes can just play. Jaquan could be really good rushing the passer and using his speed and doing that kind of thing. I’m anxious to see him play.”
Henderson agrees and is eager to oblige.
“I don’t like to think. I just like to go out and play fast. This defense fits my style,” he said. “The difference is we have two basic calls. Everybody out there knows what they’re supposed to be doing. Not a lot of thinking, that’s the main thing. Guys out there are making plays and putting guys in position to make a play.”
Making plays comes naturally to Henderson, who earned a four-star rating from ESPN and Scout coming out of high school. ESPN ranked him the nation’s No. 23 outside linebacker, Scout had him at No. 25. He showed he had a knack for being around the ball, making 60 tackles, including three sacks, while forcing two fumbles and recovering four as a senior for the Rams.
Coming off the spring, Henderson heads into fall camp planning to show that he can continue to be one of the players that can contribute to a deep and young defense.
“I think this is a good fit for him,” said Johnson. “Vic [Alexander] is [also] going to be better outside. Inside, David Curry was having a really good spring when he got hurt. So there are some guys. We have some guys that can run. I think the defense is a good fit for Georgia Tech and the players we can get here.”
Henderson and the rest of the Jackets’ young defenders not only will push back opposing defenses but push the upperclassmen forward. That’s an exciting thought for senior middle linebacker and co-captain Brant Mitchell.
“I’m extremely excited to have guys like that playing beside me,” said Mitchell. “The competition it brings when you have younger guys coming up, it’s healthy. We’ve got guys coming out of their shell and starting to work a little bit harder when they’re being pushed. So I think it’s great and I’m excited to see what this season brings with some of the younger guys.”
Henderson can’t wait, either. He was jazzed enough following the spring game.
“It was very exciting. It sort of felt like high school, that high school feeling,” he said. “I was amped up. It’s probably the best feeling I’ve felt this whole spring, having the crowd out there and just flying around.”
Mitchell knows there’s more and jumped in, tipping Henderson off that he still has much better ahead.
“Wait `til a fall Saturday!”