"We've been pushed to a new level," the junior tight end says. Yet the response from those being pushed registers about as high as an off-season barometer can read. And his remarks about the heat? Just another sign of Bulldog pride that they are coping with the conditions outside and inside and coming out stronger—if sweatier—for their pains.
"That's why we have a better attitude, you can see it in the guys when we work out," Henderson says. "Nobody is getting down on himself or getting down on others, everybody is trying to encourage everybody else." Which is not merely a matter of routine camaraderie either, this veteran Dog adds, but an absolute necessity when the going gets tough…be it on a steaming summer afternoon or a pressurized September Saturday.
"You're going to need it out here! You need everybody to have everybody's back and support so you know everybody will pick up their slack." Not that ‘slack' is encouraged but the idea is clear enough.
Also clearer is how Henderson feels about his place in the 2009 gameplan. He's already the ranking tight end on this team as a fourth-year junior, and coming off a sophomore season of six catches for 70 yards with a touchdown grab against Vanderbilt. Not big numbers, but then it was his first real chance to contribute as Mississippi State rebuilt just about the entire tight end corps last fall. And as fans for decades have bemoaned, these eligible receivers are mostly confined to blocking duties whether in run or pass plays.
This, Henderson believes, is about to change. For the better, too. "I'm feeling pretty good about the tight ends," he says. "They expect us to make plays. This offense really utilizes everybody."
And there are some bodies to be used on just about every sort of play this offensive staff can come up with. Who, how, and when are the operative questions. Spring's practices gave some clues to all the above, though it also saw the transfer of '09 regular Nelson Hurst as a result of the coaching change. Still there's a good mix of physiques and talents to match up in the ‘spread' system brought in by Coach Dan Mullen.
Take Henderson as one promising example. Coming off a short redshirt frosh season where an early ankle season limited his availability, he proved a capable blocker over the course of '08. His use as a target was more problematic given A) the need for all the blocking State could find in both runs and pass-protects, and B) the need for further development. But this past spring saw Henderson emerge as a real option in the throw-and-catch game, both standard short routes as well as more interesting down-and-out sorts of patterns.
But if Henderson likes hearing how sideline observers were impressed with his showings, he says it shouldn't be a surprise. "I played receiver in high school, so I have it," he points out. "It's in me! Now I get a chance to showcase it here in the new offense." Certainly a 250-pound target who can pull in a ball on the run and take quick contact is a welcome wrinkle to State's schemes.
And it isn't just coming out from the normal end-of-the-line stance, either. Henderson practiced from flexed-out slots that leave defenses the choice: send a linebacker out there to match up physically or bring down a safety who will be faster (Henderson is almost insulted by that idea) but not as stout. He's not the only TE on the roster who can play this role, either.
"And I feel that's an advantage for the tight ends we have here, we're an athletic group of guys. So I feel we're going to take advantage of a lot of people this season." ‘We' including current first-teamer Kendrick Cook, perhaps the best balance of block-and-catch on the squad; veteran walk-on and two-game starter Austin Wilbanks who also got on the scoreboard last season with a touchdown grab; and transfer Thomas Webb, an excellent receiver working on adding blocking muscle.
So it's a group that is still in-progress, which is an encouraging sign. Of course on these summer afternoon informal sessions there isn't a lot of blocking being done—it's too hot for that for sure—but these Dogs can practice what they enjoy best, and what the new gameplan promises for them.
"Well, they have us doing everything; blocking, coming out of the backfield, split out wide. But you know we just try to get the ball any way we can. Or help the team first of all, then we'll worry about stuff after that." Stuff such as stats, that is. Or for that matter status in the rotation, which will hinge as much on matchups as any sort of ‘depth' chart given the variety required for a successful spread.
Meanwhile Henderson and the gang will keep up their hot pace of summer as the July semester approaches. He has noticed a shift in the off-season regimen, too. Pre- and post-spring the emphasis was all competitive, all the time. Now? Team first and foremost.
"You know, we do a little competitive drills. Like the things we do on Wednesday morning, it's competitive. But at the same time while we're competing we're trying to make each other better. While we're trying to win and get points on the (Champions Club) board we're also trying to ‘win' within the team so we can take it over to Davis Wade and win on Saturdays."
And the success these Bulldogs hope to enjoy come fall will have been built on the foundations laid in spring and summer. (The sweat will have dried by then of course.) For his part Henderson feels fine about the opportunities for himself and his team during the real season. Though, he half-jokes, "The question is, how am I going to feel when I come off the field in about thirty minutes!"