Back with more confidence, Xavier Henderson ready to take charge of MSU's secondary
Xavier Henderson forgets exactly what game it was, but he certainly remembers the moment.
It was after one of Michigan State’s victories late last season when then-fifth-year senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams praised the way Henderson had been playing, and in the process, made Henderson start realizing the impact he could have.
“I remember Raequan Williams, big Ray, on the bus after one of our games toward the end of the season,” Henderson recalled in a virtual meeting with reporters last week. “He said, ‘X, man, you’re the X factor. When you play good, we win.’ I didn’t think much of it at the time, but then I kind of looked and said when I was playing confident, we had a better chance of winning and that kind of stuck with me really.
“I always wanted to go into the games with the highest confidence. Even though we had Joe Bachie and Kenny Willekes and David (Dowell) and Ray — all those leaders on the team — I felt like I wanted to be part of the leadership, too.”
A year later, the junior safety is exactly that.
From early enrollee to appearing in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2018 to starting all 13 contests a season ago, Henderson has become the steady hand in a secondary that is likely to have many new faces when Michigan State kicks off the season against Rutgers in just less than three weeks.
It’s a defensive backfield that will be leaning heavily on Henderson, the only full-time returning starter. Senior safety Tre Person and junior cornerback Shakur Brown have played plenty, but outside of that, it’s an inexperienced group, making it imperative that Henderson take the lead. And he feels he’s ready after watching the likes of Khari Willis and David Dowell in the past.
“Having a guy (with experience), especially with the new coaches, is definitely important,” Henderson said. “I felt like I was that guy, especially from playing last year and kind of taking in from all the older guys I played with like Dave Dowell and Khari Willis, who's doing great in the league right now. It was good to see their leadership and kind of get a feel for how you're supposed to lead a team, and that's something I want to do this year, for sure.”
Henderson isn’t in this position simply because he’s been around for a while. After Willis graduated and headed to the NFL, Henderson took over as the starting strong safety last season and finished second on the team with 83 tackles.
And he got better as the season went along, around the time Williams declared Henderson the X factor. Henderson had seven tackles and two pass breakups in the regular-season finale against Maryland a week after he matched a career high with nine tackles against Rutgers, when he also had an interception.
“At the beginning of the season, we played our nonconference schedule and through those games I felt good,” Henderson said. “But then we got to the Big Ten schedule and that’s a totally different animal. Just playing that competition and getting a feel for playing teams like Wisconsin and Ohio State, it was crazy and great competition.
“I think definitely after those games, I started to pick it up a little bit more and get a little bit more confidence in myself and the team, really. Toward the end of the season I felt like I was clicking, for sure, and I felt like it was our secondary and my secondary to take control of and to kind of lead these guys, especially coming in this year with some new coaching staff.”
It won’t all be new for Henderson and the rest of the secondary. Former defensive coordinator Mike Tressel is coaching the safeties while Harlon Barnett, who recruited Henderson before leaving to become the defensive coordinator at Florida State, is coaching the cornerbacks.
It’s allowed for at least some level of cohesion for the defense.
“Coach Tressel was actually the first to recruit me,” Henderson said, “and then once I got on campus it was more Coach Barnett, but it’s been good having them both talking to me and in our ear. …That’s been good having that camaraderie.”
Henderson is confident that connection will spill over to the rest of the defensive backs, a group he sees as one with plenty of talent that is pushing each other with the season close to kicking off.
“I think the competition is even more now because of the youthfulness we have on our team and some of the guys who haven't had that many snaps in games,” Henderson said. “I really like (freshman) Angelo Grose, who came in early. He's been really looking real good to me. We got a ton of guys. We got guys that can play all over the field, and I think we have some depth, for sure.
“That comes with the competitiveness we see in practice, and we’ve been just working our tails off.”