Skip to main content

New DC Donnie Henderson: Talk is Cheap, Just Play Ball

Arizona State defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson met with reporters Saturday and made the intent of his defense clear.

TEMPE -- It's safe to say Sun Devils defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson isn't about all the extra noise that can come from his group of defensive players. 

Defensive end Michael Matus said after Saturday's practice that Henderson isn't quite like former ASU defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce, who encouraged a chip on all his players' shoulders when on the field. 

Matus cracked a smile when he told reporters Henderson didn't like his defensive players talking smack. Henderson wasn't joking when asked for a response. 

"Yeah, there's reasons for it. I want them to play football. Let's control our emotions where we don't get to the point where we become combative, and just be competitive," said Henderson.

Henderson took over the reins of Arizona State's defense on Feb. 11 shortly after Pierce resigned from his duties due to his involvement in ongoing NCAA investigations surrounding ASU. 

Henderson previously spent last year as Arizona State's interim defensive backs coach and has over 30 years of coaching experience at the NCAA and NFL level.

Henderson was thinking about retiring to a nice beach before the opportunity came knocking, saying he still didn't quite have the money but more importantly wanted to steady the boat for ASU.

"I started as a consultant, right? Then all of a sudden I became a DB coach. And now all of a sudden I'm a coordinator. I think the biggest factor for me was I wanted to keep continuity with the team. And I felt that if I stayed in that position, what was offered to me, I could keep the continuity," said Henderson. 

"We could use the same verbiage, we could use the same terminology. And if we'd brought someone else in, which Herm (head coach Herm Edwards) could have done if he wanted to, it would have changed the whole continuity. In my experience, this is not my first rodeo. So it's interesting because when he asked me if I wanted to do it (accept the job), I said, 'Huh?' but I actually had some other plans to be honest with you. I was getting up in this age group where you can start thinking about the beach and little hut some place. Come to find out I can't get that money yet, so I still stay a little longer. But the main reason was keeping the continuity and I felt that was the best thing for us."

Donnie Henderson

Now Henderson presides over a Sun Devils defense that totes a strong front seven, with notable defensive lineman Jermayne Lole expected to return for the 2022 season after a season-ending injury in fall camp last year. 

When it comes to hype trains, look no further than Eric Gentry. The sophomore linebacker provides tremendous length (6-foot-6, 200 pounds) and athleticism for Arizona State to deploy a variety of schemes with him featured. 

Henderson says Gentry can accomplish big things if he sticks to what he's doing.

"Well, it's like I said to him the other day, the biggest thing he's gonna have to really transition to is being a sophomore where expectations become an issue," Henderson said. "And I don't know if it's an issue but people expect more from him now. And I think for him, if he can make the transition of just being who he is, and try not to be who people want him to be, he'll be fine."

When it comes to the defensive backfield, question marks reside across the board. Arizona State lost its two starting corners and both starting safeties from last season, and there's a number of talented names vying for playing time. For Henderson, the winner of the starting job(s) at safety will be who can communicate the best.

He said, "Really, you know, you look at the safety group right now, you got about three or four new guys back there even participating now. I think the biggest thing for them is communication. When you're a safety you got to get guys lined up. And that's always the problem when you're coming into a new situation because of the terminology. Sometimes it means the same as (previous terminology), but you still gotta be able to relay it and use the terms.

"I said this to the safeties the other day: The guy that's going to play is gonna be the guy who can clearly communicate and get guys lined up. That's the first step. And then after that you got to make plays obviously."

The Sun Devils have wrapped up their third day of spring practice, and learning a new defense can be difficult. Henderson has kept things as vanilla as possible to start the new learning period.

"So far has been pretty simple (for) what I've put in. I put in a couple of little close defenses, so that part's been pretty successful. Up front, we haven't got a lot of moving parts. It's just been straight ahead. I've made it pretty simple. Next week now, we're gonna get into a little bit more movement and blitzing and coming from different sides. So it's been pretty vanilla right now, I have to say so. It's been pretty simple," said Henderson.

Donnie Henderson

When reporters spoke with Edwards on Tuesday, he told a story of how Henderson wasn't afraid to "go off script" and "send the house" at offenses in a game during their previous stint together with the Jets, displaying the ability to cut it loose and play aggressive defense when needed. 

Henderson first touched on his relationship with Edwards, which goes back nearly four decades. 

"Herm and I go back," he noted. "I was drafted in 1980 and Herm was already over in Philadelphia. I was drafted by the Lions and they cut me. Philadelphia picked me up. So I was over there for what they call 'coffee and doughnuts' and so I got a chance. I had known Herm before that, but I was one of those guys that was trying to make the team behind Herm. That was 1980 when we first made the transition and then it was interesting how I got to be his coordinator. I was actually probably the eighth, ninth guy he interviewed.

"Some kind of way, my presentation was a little different, this is what he told me, my presentation was a little bit different than some of the other guys. Plus the defense I was running was something different than what he had. Everybody else was bringing the 4-3 and the 3-4 in, and then I came with a bunch of blitzes from one side or the other (with) guys moving around and he thought it would be a good thing to change. So we did that. We did it for two years together. 

"Then the third year Herm got traded or whatever you want to call it. So he went to Kansas City, and I was actually in the car with Herm. I went the weekend with him to become the DB coach. We're in the car and then I get a phone call from Rod Marinelli who asked me to come and be the defensive coordinator at Detroit. Herm's driving, and now Herm and Rod know each other. We all know each other. I said Herm what do you think? He says, 'What do I think? Go be the coordinator!'

"We've had a pretty good relationship. I understand him and I know he understands me a little bit so we have a lot of fun together, I know that we really do. I can play off of him and once he gets going, he plays off of me . . .  I think we have pretty good relationship. It's fun."

Henderson then dived into the art of blitzing as a defensive coordinator and what's required out of a defense to do it successfully. Henderson was asked, on a scale of 0-5, how aggressive he would be dialing it up in 2022. 

He said, "You know, we didn't do it so often (in 2021). And I'm going to be honest, I'm going to try to keep it within three, maybe right in the middle, can I play in the middle of it? I'll probably stay in the middle until we figure it out. The thing about blitzing (is) you got to have good corners. Let's be honest. If your corners can hold up, and you feel good about the edges keeping the ball inside when they're running and you can take care of the perimeter with the corners, you can bring a whole lot of people.

"We didn't blitz a lot last year and it worked out for us. The one thing we did do is we kept the ball in front and inside and we gave up some some vertical passes, don't get me wrong. But at the same time, (when) you start bringing them (defenders on a blitz) you better have some corners and guys that can hold up on the edge."

Personnel is always changing on defense, especially in a college football world that dictates a wild array of offensive schemes on a weekly basis. Henderson admits that his personnel would change by the opponent, although he did say five defensive backs would be on the field often.

"I think you got to look at it team by team, depending on where you're playing that week. You know when you play Stanford, they're gonna have two tight ends. If you play Utah they're gonna have two tight ends. You can believe USC now its gonna be wide open, you know that they're gonna spread you all the way out, you don't have to worry about that. UCLA will be UCLA, they'll have a good tight end," said Henderson. 

"So I think it's week to week. But I do know one thing, we'll probably have more five DBs on the field for sure. The bigger tight ends that are pretty good, the linebackers can't cover them. The only problem with that is little DBs can't cover them, they (the tight end) knock them around. I'm sure we'll have more (packages with) five DBs."

If we've learned anything so far, Henderson wants to cut the extra noise and simply play football, something many at Arizona State (particularly at this moment) would truly get behind. 

Thank you for making your choice for Arizona State Sun Devils coverage! Make sure to give us a like on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more news, updates, analysis and more!

ASU Football Spring Practice Notebook: Day Three

Herm Edwards Gives Insight Into QB Battle

Offensive Coordinator Glenn Thomas Talks QB Battle

How Arizona State's Offense Could Operate Differently in 2022

Herm Edwards Sounds off on Recruiting, Transfer Portal