Emerging Leader

After having a solid season playing free safety for the first time, senior Aaron Henry is setting his sights even higher in 2011, using what he learned from Jay Valai to become a great leader and what he continues to learn from Chris Ash and now DeMontie Cross to be a great college safety.

MADISON - Aaron Henry has never been shy about speaking his mind during his tenure at the University of Wisconsin.

A man of tremendous faith who doesn't mind sharing his beliefs, Henry has been on record talking about the hardships of his family, the initial frustrations of switching positions and the sympathy he gives to Ohio State's suspended players for selling its own memorabilia, an issue he spoke at length about leading up to the Rose Bowl.

So it's only fitting that the senior Henry has now become the leader of the secondary by replacing one of the best talker-players UW has had the fortune of having.

With Jay Valai having exhausted his eligibility, Henry is slated to become one of four senior starters on UW's 2011 defense, three of which reside in the secondary, and has used this spring to not only to fine tune his safety position, but develop as a leader.

Badger Nation talks with Henry about this year's spring football.

Badger Nation: Now being a senior and having a senior's perspective, how does this past winter conditioning compare to the ones you have gone through in your time here?

Henry: Man, it was intense. I think Herb did a tremendous and the staff did a tremendous job in bringing out the best in all of the players. We lifted according to positions, and so all the skill positions got to lift together. Man, it got crazy in there. It got so crazy in there one time that Herb was banging out weight with us. Everybody was amped, and this was an everyday thing. Every single day when we were in the weight room, we were on a mission and had one goal in mind: get better and get stronger. We didn't do a ton of running in our workouts, but it was crazy. It was by far in my recent memory the best conditioning we've had.

Badger Nation: What's it like being in that intense environment and seeing that environment get better and harder every year but guys still feeling great after it?

Henry: It's kind of like working hard for something and accomplishing what you worked hard for. At the beginning of winter conditioning, especially coming off the loss we had to TCU, I know a lot of guys went into it feeling like they have to get better, they have to get stronger and they have to get faster. They want to put themselves in position next year to go out and be even more successful than we were this past season. When conditioning started, guys already had goals in their mindset. In wasn't like, ‘Oh man, this lift …' Guys weren't slouching around and didn't care. In recent years, guys were just trying to get the lift over with. Everybody went in there excited, ready to work and everybody had a goal every day. Guys pushed themselves to the limit every day, and it was good to build up that competition. Kenzel Doe lifted 315 twice. For a guy that small, you don't expect that. It was great on a bunch of different levels.

Badger Nation: Kenzel is a fast son of a gun too isn't he?

Henry: Oh my gosh, extremely fast. Extremely fast.

Badger Nation: What's it like to have a weapon like that on your team?

Henry: This guy is kind of similar to Gilreath, but he is a little shorter which makes him a harder target when you go and tackle him. He has some really good hands. He had a freaking nub on his hand during winter conditioning and he was catching balls left and right during winter conditioning. He has really good hands and can fly. When you have like that, you utilize him and knowing Coach Chryst and the kind of plays he has up his sleeves, trust me, we're going to put him in some positions to make plays. If he has a great season this year, I wouldn't be surprised.

Badger Nation: Talk about up your sleeves. You look big in your chest. How have you improved weight rise and strength wise coming in to spring ball?

Henry: I think I got a whole lot stronger. I gained about five pounds from last season, and I like this weight. Last year I played between 200 and 205 and I am testing myself out playing around 210 right now. I want to see if I can condition myself to play at this weight, so it's a matter of coming out here and being ready for it. This winter conditioning was great for me because I was able to get motivated to get some work done.

Badger Nation: Jay Valai told me last spring that this is the time where leaders emerge. Do you feel that this is your time to be the leader of the defense?

Henry: Most definitely. I definitely feel that responsibility but in order to be a really good leader, you have to follow first. I was in the position in previous years of following great leaders. I think we've had some great leaders to come through here, but I think it's my time to lead. I am not one of those guys that should do this or do that. There may be times when I say that, but I am one of those guys that want my leadership to show up on the practice field and on game day. The way I lead might be a little different than some of the guys before me. I am more of a ‘speak when things need to be said.' I think we have a bunch of leaders, guys like Antonio Fenelus and Patrick Butrym and Mike Taylor. It's great taking that crown of being a leader, but in order to have a great leader, you need to have people that are going to follow and I do think we have that.

Badger Nation: Was last year a success from a team perspective?

Henry: Well … yes and no. The reason I say yes is because we played better than the year before. We improved, but I think everybody plays well throughout the season to play in a great bowl game, but to win the bowl game. Success is a moving target and we had success throughout the season, but we end up losing to TCU. That doesn't deteriorate our success throughout the season, but it means we hit a block in the road. I think we did have success last season and in order to have success this season, there are some small details we need to work on.

Badger Nation: Every year you take learning lessons and apply them to the next. From the 7-6 season, those lessons helped you go 10-3 and then 11-2 last year. What are the lessons from last year are you taking that is going to push this team like it's pushed the team in the past?

Henry: We had great memories from Pasadena, but an extremely sour taste in every guy that is returning this year. All the guys that play, it's a disgusting taste. To be on that national stage playing in front of the whole world and come up short, it's extremely frustrating. I know the way guys work and the mindset they have, so I know they're going to come back 100 percent ready to work. We've seen that through two weeks that a lot of guys are ready to get back on the field and work. I am looking forward to this season because I know, I know, I know we're going to play extremely well.

Badger Nation: How strong do you think the secondary is going to be this spring in terms of having a lot of bodies back and a lot of young guys back?

Henry: I think spring is a great learning tool, especially last spring was my first time playing free safety. I think this secondary has a tremendous amount of potential. We have three seniors back there, Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward competing for the strong safety position and the completion level and the way we push each other, I think we're able to go out there and play tough on the ball every single game and put the secondary on the map. I truly think so, but that's not going to mean anything if we go out there, give games away, miss tackles and get beat deep. I think last year, we had so much competition that we had guys hungry and are still hungry, but it's a little bit different than it was last year. Since we lost to TCU, guys are just so amped to come back. I think this secondary could be one of the best in the country, but we've got to work.

Coach Ash did a great job working with us last year. It's going to be his second year working with us and this guy is a genius. He definitely helped me take my game to a new level and I am definitely appreciative of that, especially moving me to a new position. With all the things he has up his sleeve, he's going to put our defense in great position to make takeaways and make big plays.

Badger Nation: Lastly, how have you enjoyed working with Coach Cross?

Henry: I definitely enjoyed it. He's a different guy, being that he comes from the NFL into college ball, but he still had the same mindset as the other coaches. He wants to put us in great position to get that ball, be successful and he wants to win. He wants the secondary and the safeties to have what he teaches show up on the field. If it doesn't, that's a reflection of our coach and we don't want to let him down.

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