Xavier Henderson filling big shoes at safety for Michigan State

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Xavier Henderson may have wanted a little more of a celebration after his first career interception on Saturday.

But the defensive backs room sure had plenty of fun ribbing Josiah Scott for his missed pick during film sessions afterwards.

The good times continue to roll for the Michigan State secondary despite losses of Justin Layne and Khari Willis to the NFL.

Henderson, a sophomore safety, atoned for an earlier mistake as he was beat on a slant by Western Michigan tight end Giovanni Ricci for a touchdown, but then made an interception helping out fellow safety David Dowell on another Jon Wassink pass to a tight end in the end zone.

Henderson got up and spun the ball in the end zone after the play, but was looking for All-American defensive end Kenny Willekes for more choreography.

“Me and Kenny kind of mess around and do dances out on the practice field, but he was like, ‘Yeah, I meant to come over and dance with you but I like blacked out,’” Henderson said. “And I kind of blacked out when I spun the ball and I don't know, just me and Dave were laughing about it. But it was just a good thing to get the ball back for our team in that situation.”

Defensive backs coach Paul Haynes said the Henderson sequence demonstrated the aptitude and short memory that serves him well.

“He’s hard on himself, but a smart kid though, so he picks up on it,” Haynes said. “Like I said, he came right off the field and knew exactly what he did, right and wrong.”

The 51-17 result even made Scott’s earlier mishap a laughing matter. The junior cornerback missed an easy pick on a deflected ball. 

Haynes said the team laughed about it, watching it a couple times on film, and explained Scott was making return plans prematurely.

“Yeah, we had fun with that one,” Haynes said. “It’s funny because we stress so much on getting down the near sideline and everything, and it’s funny how you watch guys catch interceptions and they go across the field. They go where everybody else is, so we were teasing him like you dropped it because you don’t know where near sideline was because he was in the middle.”

Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson

Speaking of film, Dowell probably has seen the clips more than most. Henderson said the fifth-year senior, with a lighter academic load than the younger guys, is always free to watch film.

“I’m like, ‘I can't, I have class right now,’” Henderson said. “I was thinking about it and I got those guys in the back end helping me out, which is amazing.”

That’s nothing compared to the help received by Willekes and the dominant front, which makes life easier for Henderson and the others.

“Those four monsters and those three linebackers up front in front of me, you know, I mean…it makes my life so much easier,” Henderson said. “It’s a blessing for sure.”

Without Willis and Layne, the defense hasn’t missed a beat in two routs of mid-major foes. This weekend, the secondary will face true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, who leads the Arizona State offense.

Henderson has replaced Willis but is not being asked to do everything Willis brought to the field in his 30 career starts, which culminated in an All-Big Ten third-team selection last season.

“He’s doing the things we’re asking him to do,” Haynes said of Henderson. “At that position, you’ve got to tackle well, and that’s one thing that he’s doing well is he’s tackling well.”

Henderson has eight solo tackles, second only to Scott (nine) on the defense. Henderson tied linebacker Joe Bachie for the team lead with seven tackles against Western Michigan.

“I think I made some progress for sure. I mean, it's with every game there’s always gonna be some good stuff and gonna be some bad stuff,” Henderson said. “You know, I’m just bringing what I can bring to the table for this defense, for this team.”

Arizona State at Michigan State

Kickoff: 4 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Both teams 2-0

Line: Michigan State by 14

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.