Florida sophomore defensive back CJ Henderson is a man of few words, but his teammates quickly speak up when his name comes up.
“He really doesn’t talk that much. He’s a laid-back kid, and he’s going to work hard and give it his all on Saturday’s and in practice,” junior wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland said. “I don’t really see him talking smack.”
With fellow starting corner Marco Wilson lost in the team’s second game this season, Henderson has helped glue Florida’s inexperienced secondary this season, and one could make a reasonable argument that the Gators wouldn’t be on the cusp of New Year’s Six Bowl invitation if it weren’t for Henderson’s play in 2018. With seven pass break-ups, two interceptions and two sacks this season, Henderson has shown a knack for affecting the quarterback — and preventing big plays.
“I think, CJ, what makes him so special is he has length, he has speed, he works really hard at his technique. He works really hard at the game and that’s what makes him a great player,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said. “If you look at the combination of his length, size, (and) speed, it makes him a very, very special player.”
Reminisce to Florida’s 35-31 victory over South Carolina, a game that featured Florida’s second three-possession comeback of the season. Speedy South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel appeared to be headed for the end zone in the third quarter after breaking free on a slant, but Henderson wasn’t about to concede six just yet. Henderson caught up to the dynamic Samuel, dragging him down just short of the goal line. The play kept the comeback in sight for the Gators — but it was hardly the first time Henderson had put the SEC on notice with his speed.
“Well, I mean, he did it at Tennessee, if you remember,” UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “The guy plays hard. The thing about CJ is, he gives relentless effort all the time. He’s a really good player. He’s a guy that takes a lot of pride in his work, and he practices like that, honestly. That’s why he made that play and gave us a chance to bring him down.”
Heading into the regular season finale at Florida State, Henderson pointed to Joe Haden as a considerable influence in his decision to attend UF. Like Haden, who played quarterback at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Maryland, Henderson played on offense in high school and didn’t transition to the secondary until just before his arrival at college.
Considering two of UF’s all-time defensive backs spent their high school careers gutting the secondary, there might be something to transitioning to the position. But it’s more than likely Mullen is just looking for some worldly explanation to explain Henderson’s dominance at a position he’s spent under three years playing.
“It was probably smart, right? In high school football, corner is a tough position to recruit. If you go to Joe Haden’s recruiting story, he was a quarterback and we had to sign him as a receiver. I remember being in a staff meeting and the defense rejected him. They wouldn’t sign him. So Billy Gonzales was recruiting him and Billy came to me and he’s like, ‘I think the kid is special. I think he’s a corner, but I think he’s special. But for us to sign him, we gotta sign him on offense. I had to sign off to take him as an offensive player. We signed him and Billy said we’ll sign him as a receiver and take one of our receiver spots. He did that for about 30 seconds,” Mullen said. “But I do think if you’re a very good high school coach, you got a player like CJ, to just have him stand out there at corner and you’re going to play a team that might not throw that much, you’re kind of wasting one of your better players. Give him the ball. Put the ball in his hands. If I’m a high school coach and I got a great player, I’m putting the ball in his hands and see if people can stop him.”