While the Florida Gators have yet to take the field in 2020, some of its former players got their first crack at an NFL debut and none were more productive than former Florida cornerback CJ Henderson.
Selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Henderson starred with the Jaguars, playing as the team's No. 1 cornerback against the Indianapolis Colts during the NFL's opening weekend.
At Florida, Henderson was known as a shut-down cornerback with plenty of athleticism to boot. During his three years in college, Henderson shut down receiver after receiver while hauling in six interceptions in his career.
On Sunday, not much was different as Henderson was able to lock in and lock up one of the better receivers in football, T.Y. Hilton. Hilton was held to just four receptions for 53 yards on the day with Henderson seemingly giving up only one of those receptions.
On the day, Henderson gave up just five receptions for 55 yards, including the 21-yard reception by Hilton, that, combined with all of his other statistics averages out to just a 28.3 passer rating when targetted, according to Pro Football Focus, an impressive day for any cornerback against Henderson, let alone a rookie.
Henderson also recorded his first career interception, playing his man perfectly before dropping down to make the play against quarterback Phillip Rivers.
“It felt good," Henderson told members of the media following the game on Sunday when asked about his first career interception. "It was a great play. I studied hard all week, and I was prepared for it, not that it was a surprise to me. But I’ve got a lot to work on, so I’m going to get started on that.”
Henderson's interception would come at a key moment in the game. With the Jaguars down 7-0 and coming off of two drives that ended in punts, the team's offense needed some sort of spark. Henderson picked off Rivers at the Colts' 49-yard-line, returning the interception for 22 yards to the 27-yard-line. The Jaguars would take advantage of his interception, scoring a touchdown on the drive.
“I saw the ball the whole way with the coverage we were playing, but I was scared as hell that I was going to drop it. So I caught it the way I did and celebrated after.”
While Henderson admits he was "scared as hell" to drop the interception, he didn't play scared all game. On the day, Henderson recorded five solo tackles and three pass breakups to go along with the one interception on the day.
In yesterday's game, Henderson became just the fourth player in NFL history to post three pass breakups including at least one interception for a player's NFL debut. He joins Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (2018), Minnesota Vikings CB Mike Hughes (2018) and Baltimore Ravens CB Marcus Peters (2015, Kansas City Chiefs), according to the Jaguars' PR department.
While Henderson's debut was mostly about his play against the pass, it was his effort and physicality tackling the ball carrier that truly set his day apart.
Throughout the draft process and even afterward, Henderson's "knock" according to pundits was his inability to tackle. All of those theories can simply be put to rest, however, as Henderson made several key tackles on the day, including one that looked as if he shot out of a cannon to prevent the first down.
Henderson himself, however, isn't worried about the noise at all, allowing him to prove himself right, rather than proving anyone else wrong.
"I’m not here to prove anybody wrong," Henderson said frankly when asked about proving the naysayers wrong about his tackling today. "I’m here to prove myself right and not worry about what other people have to say, because that would affect the way I play.”
One of the best traits a young player can have is the ability to overcome a mistake and work hard to correct it, to get better. Henderson has shown such maturity throughout training camp, and Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone has noticed.
"He’s a guy that really has great ability and has the ability to make plays and really be a difference-maker," Marrone told members of the media following the game on Sunday. "I think there’s probably some technique stuff that we’ll keep going and correct. And that’s what’s great about CJ. He’s constantly wanting to learn, he constantly wants to be a better football player, and we think he’s a heck of a player now."
Ultimately, Henderson is going to allow his play do the talking, blocking out the noise, and get ready to roll in the following weeks. A fantastic day for the former Gator, he will continue to get to work.
"I’m about to go home to all my family and a whole bunch of messages, but I’m going to try to block it out and get ready for the next week because I’ve got to do it again.”