Jaguars rookie cornerback Henderson has shown he can contribute early

Florida defensive back CJ Henderson. [Associated Press]

By Garry Smits/Florida Times-Union

K’Lavon Chaisson is glad CJ Henderson is finally on his side.

For three years, as their college careers coincided from 2017-19, Chaisson watched his teammates who were wide receivers at LSU go head-to-head with Henderson, the University of Florida’s shutdown cornerback.

Sometimes Chaisson’s teammates won the battles. Other times Henderson won.

Chaisson still remembers the shows they put on.

“He was having a great battle with our top receiver [Justin Jefferson] and not too many cornerbacks could match up with him,” Chaisson recalled on Friday after Jaguars rookies practiced. “Once I saw that I was a fan of his already. Obviously I wasn’t speaking it too loud and we would keep it to ourselves but … just to see him at that game and go back and forth with the top receiver in college football … it’s a blessing to have him on my team.”

Henderson was the first of the Jaguars No. 1 draft picks in April, the ninth overall selection. Chaisson was picked 11 spots later to potentially give the Jaguars a dynamic one-two punch on defense.

But Henderson filled the biggest need on that side of the ball, a hole created when Jalen Ramsey was traded during the season to the Los Angeles Rams. The No. 1 cornerback job will be Henderson’s to lose but hardly anyone thinks that’s possible.

“We feel he is a No. 1-type corner,” Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said after the draft.

Henderson and the rest of the Jaguars rookie class did not have the benefit of the usual round of mini-camps and OTAs because of the coronavirus pandemic and only touched grass this week, mostly for conditioning and walk-throughs.

The NFL also will not hold preseason games, further restricting rookies from getting acclimated to the pro game.

But Gator fans will remember how Henderson hit the ground running as a freshman — all the way to the Michigan end zone with an interception, a 41-yard score. He added another interception return for a touchdown in the opening SEC game that season against Tennessee. He had four interceptions that season and only two in the next two years, as offensive coordinators steered their attention and their quarterbacks’ eyes elsewhere.

His immediate success at Florida is giving Henderson the inner belief that he can do the same thing with the Jaguars.

“I think that helped me out, with the competition I have been [facing] from day one in the SEC,” he said on Friday. “I’m ready to go out and help the team in any way I can.”

Henderson also said the defensive scheme at Florida under coordinator Todd Grantham when he was a sophomore and junior with the Gators has helped prepare him for the complexities of the NFL.

“I was prepared a lot for this,” he said. “It’s pretty much the same scheme, it’s just a little bit faster and a little more plays but I think they have the same mindset … it’s not to difficult to adapt.”

Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said it’s hard come to any judgments on the rookies at this point, given the fact that the off-season was conducted through virtual meetings, players had to condition and lift weights on their own, and training camp has been in shorts and jerseys.

But based on what they’ve been asked to do, he likes the group, led by his two first-round picks.

“They look good … they can walk,” he said. “I mean, we’re just walking through, so it’s not hard. Those players [Henderson and Chaisson] and everyone else have really been doing everything that you’d like done.”

Henderson said he’s doing his best to adapt to training camp in the COVID-19 era.

“It’s been crazy … we’re learning how to adapt and live in these strange ways,” he said. “It’s just different for everyone so we’re trying just to find a way, since it’s new for all the guys here.”