Ross Tucker
Thursday May 29th, 2008

Like most star high school quarterbacks, Chad Henne turned heads as he walked through the halls. Even the teachers could be caught at times staring at the pride of the Wilson Bulldogs, a perennial Class AAAA Pennsylvania football power an hour west of Philadelphia whose NFL alumni includes Titans quarterback Kerry Collins. The scene is fairly common in high schools across the country, except for one important detail. Henne wasn't in high school. He was in junior high.

Wilson High only houses grades 10-12, which means that Henne was isolated from his varsity teammates when his storied career as a starting quarterback began when he was a freshman. "It was pretty funny," he recalled this week. "My friends were on the junior high team and they would wear their jerseys to school on Thursday. Then I would wear mine on Friday."

Henne starting as a freshman was no small feat; only a year earlier he had been a stalwart on the junior high team as a fullback. But he's a quick learner -- he was taught how to play quarterback over one summer by former Wilson coach Jim Cantafio -- and that may be his biggest asset as he prepares for his first season in the NFL.

• The Most-Prepared?

The media and NFL personnel people are prone to labeling prospects and rookies as soon as possible. Matt Ryan, taken No. 3 by the Falcons in the 2008 draft, was considered the one can't-miss franchise quarterback in the bunch. Joe Flacco, drafted at No. 18 by the Ravens, had the big arm and the even bigger upside given his unique physical skills. Brian Brohm, a second-round pick (No. 56) by the Packers, was the most proficient passer of them all given the numbers he racked up at Louisville. So where did that put Henne, the fourth and last quarterback taken (No. 57) on the first day of the draft?

How about the most ready to start from day one.

It isn't like Henne hasn't done it before. He followed his remarkable success in high school by starting the 2004 season opener for Michigan as a true freshman after an injury to starting quarterback Matt Gutierrez. Henne proceeded to break nearly every Wolverine passing record, including yards (9,715) and touchdowns (87). His vast experience was a big reason why the Dolphins grabbed him.

"We really liked that he was a four-year starter at the University of Michigan and had been in some tremendous pressure situations," said Dolphins coach Tony Sparano. "We were excited about getting the opportunity to get him at the spot we got him."

Though Henne acknowledges that "starting early was a big boost for me", he is smart enough to know that NFL success is unlikely to come as quickly or as easily as it did in high school and in college.

"I think being a rookie in the NFL will be the toughest [of the three]," said Henne. "Just the speed of the game at this level and the capacity of information that you are responsible for."

• The Apprenticeship

Henne is more than qualified to process the wealth of information that he will be given in the Dolphins offense, given the responsibility he was handed while leading the Wolverines.

"I think I have the ability to pick things up quickly because I was in charge of all of the protections and given a lot of run/pass checks at Michigan," said Henne.

His new head coach agreed, adding, "When we visited with him before the draft, we could tell that he was not out of his element at all mentally. We knew that he would be able to stay out of bad plays, which is crucial in this league. Then, at the end of the rookie camp, he was able to go in the huddle and communicate effectively with the guys without being a distraction, and that is critical."

The ability to take command of the huddle is vital to Henne's hopes to impress his veteran teammates. During my playing days, more than a couple of rookie quarterbacks made poor first impressions when they initially stepped into the huddle, by either fumbling their words or appearing timid. Veterans can sense fear and it is incumbent upon rookie quarterbacks to establish an immediate huddle presence, no matter how difficult it may be.

NFL quarterbacks also need to have a thick skin, and perhaps no quarterback in this year's draft was under as much of a microscope as Henne. Despite all of Henne's success at Michigan, there were several times when portions of the Michigan faithful were highly critical of him. Many pointed to his inability to beat Ohio State while others criticized him for failing to win a bowl game before he silenced them a bit with a career-high 373 yards passing and three touchdowns in a Capital One Bowl victory over Florida.

"There are always going to be some bandwagon fans that only support you when things are going well," said Henne. "You definitely learn to deal with the expectations of a place like Michigan."

Sparano, for one, is not troubled by the perceived lack of success in big games. "That was not a concern for us," he said. "We put a priority on his arm strength, his physical talent, his workouts, and his experience playing in those big games."

• The Henne era?

There are often two schools of thought when it comes to developing young quarterbacks taken high in the draft. Peyton Manning was thrust immediately into the lineup and allowed to learn on the job, while Carson Palmer got to watch and learn for a year before taking over the reins.

"I don't have a philosophy one way or the other," said Sparano, "the best players play. We are going to have competition here at every position and quarterback is no different."

But is it in the Dolphins best interests for Henne to start come September? The new regime in Miami is led by Bill Parcells, a no-nonsense, old-school guy who has a reputation for changing the culture of a team once he takes over. The culture in Miami has been a losing one, and some observers speculate that in an effort to create a winning atmosphere early, the Dolphins will start veteran free-agent pickup Josh McCown over Henne and last year's second-round pick John Beck.

"There are some situations where going with the quarterback with the most stripes might be the best answer, but we are truly going to have a quarterback competition," said Sparano. "It is like a blank piece of paper for us, and what we see on the practice field is what we are going to go with."

Henne says he'll simply "try to compete to play as soon as I can." That philosophy has certainly served him well in the past.

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