Three years ago, as a true freshman who had been on the Florida campus for a mere two months, cornerback CJ Henderson launched his college football career with back-to-back pick sixes in the first two games of the 2017 season.
So, maybe everyone should have seen this coming.
Henderson followed his blazing start with an outstanding career where he made many plays and was rarely beat in the UF secondary. And, now, the fantastic finale: Henderson is a first-round NFL Draft picked, selected in Round One by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the ninth overall pick Thursday night.
The Jags had shown a great deal of interest in Henderson, talking to him three times leading up to the draft.
“They told me great things and felt great about me,” he said. “They gave me an opportunity. I feel like I bring a lot. It feels great. I’ve heard great things about their defense. I plan on learning more about it and adding a spark to it.
“I feel like I can work on every aspect of my game. I feel like I’m nowhere near my potential. I haven’t reached that.”
After trading former All-Pro cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye in recent months, cornerback was a huge need for the Jags in this draft. Henderson will be counted on to make an immediate impact in replacing those two.
“I’m ready for it,” he said. “I’m very smart and very athletic. I plan to use that. I work very hard on the field and in the film room as well. I plan to use both of those added on to my athleticism. I plan to dominate.”
UF coach Dan Mullen congratulated Henderson on Twitter.
“Your focus, hard work and commitment to being the best at Florida made everyone around you better. We are excited about your future,” Mullen posted.
Mullen then surprised Henderson, popping up on a Zoom call with the media and telling Henderson that he is the best pick the Jags have made in a long, long time.
“I know they’re going to be thrilled,” Mullen said. “He’s just a perfectionist. One thing you’ll see is he’s one of the first ones in and definitely one of the last to leave – working on his skill, working on his technique and working on ways to improve. He’s a guy who has a competitive nature and wants to be the absolute best of the best. He’s going to constantly work on every bit of that technique.”
For his UF career, Henderson started 27 games and recorded 92 tackles, six interceptions, 22 pass breakups and four sacks. And here’s maybe the most important stat of all, especially when it comes to translating to the NFL: in man-to-man coverage, Henderson had 172 snaps, was targeted 49 times and gave up only one touchdown.
This past season, he missed three games with an injured ankle and finished the year with 33 tackles, 3.0 tackles for losses and 11 pass breakups. He shut it down after the season finale against FSU, skipping the Orange Bowl to concentrate on training for the NFL Combine.
It turned out to be a prudent move because he tore it up in Indianapolis, running the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds, doing 20 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press, had a vertical jump of 37.5 inches and a broad jump of 127.00 inches.
In the weeks that followed, he saw his draft stock rise, with many projecting him to be a top 10 pick, which he now is.
Henderson is the Gators’ 53 overall first-round selection and the 18th since 2007. He’s the ninth UF defensive back taken in the first round since 1970. Henderson became the 13th Gators top-10 draft pick in the common draft era.
Henderson joins former UF teammates in Jacksonville, defensive tackle Taven Bryan and offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor. The Jaguars selected Bryan with their top pick in 2018 and Taylor in the second round last year. Linebacker and special teams ace Lerentee McCray, an eight-year vet, is another former UF standout on the roster.
“He really fit the mold with what we look for in corners,” Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell said. “We believe he can take a team’s No. 1 receiver because of his athleticism and his speed, and he’s a great kid. He’s all about football.”
The Jaguars have selected a Gator in the first round for the sixth time (Fred Taylor, Reggie Nelson, Derrick Harvey, Dante Fowler and Taven Bryan).