Xavier Henderson still mulling future at Michigan State, but focus for now is on Pitt
While running back Kenneth Walker III has made up his mind, the same can’t be said for Xavier Henderson.
The Michigan State running back, who ran for more than 1,600 yards and scored 17 rushing touchdowns this season while winning the Walter Camp and Doak Walker awards, opted out of playing in Thursday’s Peach Bowl and is focused on preparing for next spring’s NFL Draft.
Henderson, the senior safety who said before the season he intended for this to be his last at Michigan State before wavering near the end of the regular season, is still weighing his options ahead of the 10th-ranked Spartans’ matchup with No. 12 Pittsburgh.
“Yeah, I'm still contemplating a little bit,” Henderson said Monday after the Spartans practiced at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “And that's not really something I want to talk about right now. It's really, that's the least of our concerns right now. We’re worried about Pitt.”
When Henderson said in late July at Big Ten media days that he was planning to make this his last season with the Spartans, it seemed like the logical step. But things haven’t exactly played out as many might have expected.
The Spartans (10-2) have had an outstanding season, and Henderson has put up solid numbers. He leads the team in tackles (94) and tackles for loss (10) and has an interception with three sacks and a forced fumble. In the win over Nebraska in late September, Henderson collected a career-high 17 tackles.
However, the fact the pass defense has struggled surely hasn’t helped. Michigan State is ranked last in the nation, allowing 337.4 yards a game through the air, and the captain and three-year starter has taken his share of heat over the secondary’s struggles.
That doesn’t change his value to the team, though, and he’s likely contemplating whether returning for a fifth season — one offered to players after the COVID-shortened 2020 season — will help improve his NFL stock.
“I’d love to see him have a big game,” defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said of Henderson, who was bothered by an injured shoulder late in the season. “X is our best leader and one of the most fun guys to be around. He's a great communicator. And we're excited and hopefully he can make some of those plays while getting healthy.”
Green and white ties
Most know the ties Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi has to Michigan State, having led the Spartans’ defense for eight seasons under Mark Dantonio, turning that unit into one of the best in the nation before taking the Pitt job following the 2014 season.
But the staff connections don’t end there. Tight ends coach Tim Salem, who has been a part of Narduzzi’s staff from the beginning at Pitt, will be stepping in to run the offense as the Panthers’ prepare for Thursday’s game after offensive coordinator Mark Whipple left to take a job a Nebraska.
Salem happens to be the brother of Brad Salem, the former assistant at Michigan State who spent the 2019 season as the team’s offensive coordinator after coaching running backs and quarterbacks at various times from 2010-18 under Dantonio.
And Landan Salem, Tim Salem’s son who is the recruiting coordinator at Memphis, was a recruiting assistant at Michigan State in 2014.
“I think anytime you've got family ties, relationships with other schools, you like to follow that,” Tim Salem said. “And I do know the fight song. I'm not going to sing it today, but I do know the fight song.
“But I think we're very eager to play a game. I think our players are excited to play a Big Ten opponent and I think Michigan State's had a phenomenal football season. It will be a great game Thursday.”
Michigan State might not go far to replace running backs coach William Peagler, who after Thursday’s game will head to Florida as the Gators’ tight ends coach.
According to Pete Thamel of SI.com, Michigan State coach Mel Tucker is targeting Effrem Reed to be Peagler’s replacement. Reed has spent the last two years with the Spartans as an offensive analyst and earlier this month accepted the position of running backs coach under Clay Helton at Georgia Southern.
The move would leave Michigan State still seeking one more on-field assistant to replace cornerbacks coach Travares Tillman, who left to become the defensive backs coach at Georgia Tech, his alma mater.