Senior Khalid Henderson turning experience into big plays for Kentucky Wildcats defense

Although the fact came with little fanfare, Khalid Henderson entered the 2015 season with more career games played and started than any player on the Kentucky defense.

Two weeks into the season, the senior linebacker from Mableton, Ga., is turning that experience into proverbial gold as one of the Wildcats’ most consistent playmakers.

“I thought maybe he played his best game since he’s been here,” UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said of Henderson’s 11-tackle performance last week in a 26-22 win at South Carolina. “Khalid has always been a guy that we’ve needed, and he stepped up and did some good things on Saturday.”

Good things included what may have been the play of the night. With the Gamecocks riding a wave of momentum in the fourth quarter, rallying within two points of UK after trailing 24-7 at the half, Henderson met South Carolina star Pharoh Cooper at the line of scrimmage on a 2-point conversion and forced a fumble that teammate Denzil Ware scooped up and returned 98 yards to put the Cats up by four points. Not only did the Gamecocks fail to tie the game, UK could no longer lose the game on a field goal.

“I just remember taking on two blockers and splitting the double-team,” Henderson said. “We were out of position as far as the defense and getting the play in kinda late, so I had to take on two blockers and split them and found myself on top of Pharoh Cooper. I just punched the ball out, and it wound up in Denzil Ware’s hands.”

According to Henderson, it was a good example of UK’s mental toughness heading into its third year under head coach Mark Stoops.

“We didn’t have the right personnel to match their offensive personnel, so we were outnumbered on that side,” he said. “It was just a great effort play by the whole defense.”

Henderson also played well in UK’s season-opening 40-33 win over UL Lafayette, posting nine tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry in place of injured starter Ryan Flannigan. He’s currently second on the team with 20 tackles, trailing fellow senior linebacker Josh Forrest by only two stops. He is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (2) and leads in quarterback hurries (2), proving to be an extremely adept blitzer in the Cats' shift to a 3-4 base defense.

“Wow, Khalid’s hit some PRs -- you know, personal records -- in the last couple of games,” UK linebackers coach Andy Buh said. “I’m just excited to see him to see him grow and play at that level that we always thought he could play at, so it’s been fun watching him.”

The UK staff credits Henderson for having a great off-season in the strength and conditioning program. He bulked up to 240 pounds while improving his overall speed and explosiveness.

“I think it’s helped him in the run game, especially,” Eliot said. “He’s been a much more physical tackler, and it’s helped him getting off blocks.”

Combined with Henderson’s wealth of experience, it has made him an extremely productive player this season.

“We talk about needing reps,” Eliot said. “There’s a guy who’s got a lot of game reps, so there’s not many things that he hasn’t seen, not many things he hasn’t reacted to, not many checks that he hasn’t made, and that goes a long way.”

Said Henderson: “I’ve been doing good on my assignments, for the most part, and just making the plays when they’re there.”

From his point of view, he thinks he can play even better.

“I’m going to be my toughest critic, always,” Henderson said. “The coaches have their standards, and I have my own personal standards, so I just want to live up to my standards and go above and beyond.”

Which includes?

“Just be relentless for four quarters, not take any plays off,” Henderson added. “Make every assignment and try to get a little more takeaways than just tackles.”

He’s got a big fan in his position coach.

“He’s a kid that’s fun to be around,” Buh said, “and one of the guys we’ve always talked about, you know, a guy in front of you falls down or gets injured, be the guy who comes in and shows us what you can do, and do it at a high level. It’s something that Khalid’s been able to do. We really appreciate that, and we’re rooting for him to do it some more.”

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