Paying Dividends

Junior linebacker Jay Henry attained a reputation for being an intelligent player from Day One in a Mountaineer uniform, and he is upholding that label this spring as he concentrates on learning the inside linebacker position.

Henry, who is already familiar with the outside backer positions, is working a lot this spring at the middle (mike) linebacker spot. Once he masters that slot, he will be able to play any of West Virginia's three linebacking positions, which will not only make him very valuable to defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, but also likely earn him more playing time. Henry had 38 tackles, including two for losses last year, but figures to increase those totals this season as a linchpin of WVU's rebuilt linebacking corps. With the graduation of stalwarts Adam Lehnortt and Scott Gyorko, there are plenty of openings on the second level of the Mountaineer defense, and the heady Henry knows it. With the outside positions under his belt, he's working hard to get a grip on the differences of playing inside.

"I'm having a pretty good spring," said Henry of his work so far. "I know what's going on on the field. I don't know everything, but I have a good grasp of what we are trying to do on defense. I think that's the biggest difference between this year and last year."

While the basic fundamentals of playing any linebacker position are the same, Henry notes there are a number of subtle differences between playing outside and inside that the average fan might not see.

"There are different keys in the middle," said Henry of the things he has had to "relearn" since moving inside. "You take on different blocks. Scheme-wise, I feel like I am getting in the rhythm. I've been learning some stuff at the mike that I wasn't good at before. I do feel like I am getting better every day."

One difference between outside and inside backer that almost any football fan could pick out is the increased contact the mike linebacker has to endure. That's not a problem for Henry, who smiled as he talked about the hitting at the spot.

"You definitely get hit more at mike. There are guards and centers coming at you every play," Henry described. "I've been working on using my hands more [to fend of blocks]. That's something you have to work on in this defense."

Despite the position switch, which often leaves a player's head swimming, Henry says he has taken to the new spot without much confusion. While admitting that his first few months in a Mountaineer uniform "were a little chaotic", he says that now "it seems like [the game] is slowing down for me."

That phrase has become a popular one for assessing a player's comfort level. Newcomers or players that are still learning assignments feel like things are happening 90 miles per hour, but once they are assimilated, players often perceive that the game has slowed down. In fact, it's the player's reads and reactions that have increased in speed, but the process isn't important. What is important is the fact that the player is now more effective. Coaches often use the phrase "the light bulb is coming on" for him in the same situation, but whatever the idiom, it's usually a sign that better play is to come.

Despite his improvement, Henry isn't ready to claim a spot in the linebacking corps as his own just yet.

"I feel like I have put in my work, but I don ‘t feel like it's my starting job yet," said the hard-working native of Tulsa, Okla. "We have all the way up until Sept. 2 to earn it, so I have to keep working."

Another area in which Henry is looking to improve is leadership. Other than Adam Jones, who departed early for the NFL draft, the Mountaineers didn't have many vocal leaders on the defensive side last year. And while Henry isn't the most outspoken of players, he is trying to chip in and fill that void.

"We had a good bunch of guys getting after it," Henry noted. "There's something different about this spring. It seems like we are gelling better. Jahmile Addae and Ernest Hunter are really leading.

"I definitely think I can be a leader, too. When I'm in the middle, it's something I have to do, because I call the plays and have to get the defense ready to go. Jahmile is getting guys lined up too, and he has stepped up from last year."

No matter where he ends up lining up on defense this year, Henry will have to make an impact if the Mountaineer linebackers are to equal the production of last year's group. And with his ability to play all three spots, there probably won't be many times fans won't see #42 on the field this fall.

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