BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — There was a time when Indiana tight end Peyton Hendershot would be the last player on the practice field and the first to leave. He was, as some coaches like to say, a "bare minimum'' guy.
And that's no compliment.
But these are different times for Indiana's redshirt sophomore. Now, he's all about getting extra catches in, either before practice or afterward. It's the same on game day as well, when he and quarterback Peyton Ramsey would often be the first two players on the field, getting extra work in.
"It speaks a lot to his maturity, because it's something he would have never done in the past. And he would be the first one to tell you that,'' Ramsey said of his tight end, who has 46 catches so far this season, second-most on the team. "He used to be the last one on the practice field and the first one to go in, but now his mindset has completely changed, just his willingness to get better and to grow.''
"Now it's just an understood thing that we'll get in some extra work, because that's what we do. There doesn't have to be a reason why, it's just kind of what we do.''
Hendershot has become a key piece in Indiana's offense this season, and the success this group has had under first-year offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer has had a lot to with his growth as a weapon.
That extra work? It doesn't apply to just making better catches. Hendershot's third year on campus has been his first in the spotlight, and he's good with that. He had only 15 catches a year ago, and as a true freshman out of Tri-West High School in North Salem, Ind. west of Indianapolis, he played in four games with no catches, and was redshirted.
This year, people have noticed his 46 catches. He was an honorable mention all-Big Ten selection, which is nice. But it's not enough for him, either.
"It's an outstanding accomplishment, and I'm proud of it, but I want to do so much more,'' said Hendershot, who's 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds and runs great routes. "It was a good step, but I want to do more. I want to be an all-Big Ten tight end. I want to be a better blocker, and be more explosive, make bigger plays once I catch the ball.''
Hendershot has done big things this year right from the get-go. He had at least four catches in eight of Indiana's 12 games. He's scored four touchdowns as well, and even a 2-point conversion.
But the best play he made all year didn't result in a touchdown, almost by choice. That came in the Purdue game, where he was wide open in the second overtime, caught a pass and headed toward the goal line. He could have reached out for a potential game-winning score, but instead kept the ball secure and went down at the 1-yard line. Ramsey snuck in on the next play, and Indiana had a huge win over Purdue, bringing the Old Oaken Bucket back to Bloomington.
"I never had so much fun playing in a football game. I was tearing up. That was my favorite game ever,'' Hendershot said of the 44-41 double-overtime win at Purdue. "It was crazy. We were up three touchdowns, and they came back. We worked so hard, and it was great to bring the Bucket back home.
"They had shown that defense called "Turtle'' where they bring all the people, and I had been pass blocking a ton in that game, so when we called that play, I knew I would be wide open. "My family was like, 'why didn't you reach out?' No I didn't want to risk it, I didn't want to fumble because i would have been devastated.''
Both Ramsey and starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr. relied on Hendershot a lot all year. because he's a big target — and a safety net.
"You know he's going to be able to catch contested passes and he's a big body that can box out guys,'' Ramsey said. "If you need to just put one on him if there's pressure, it just makes my job easier. To have a tight end that's able to do those things and be almost like another wide receiver out there, it's a weapon, it really is. He's been so helpful.
"His growth has been monumental in our success this year. It's helped so much how he's played, been a good target and been a good blocker for us in this offense.''
Hendershot's grasp of the offense has grown a lot, too. The Purdue play, for instance, wouldn't have happened a year ago.
"In the past, he never would have told you that he knew he would be wide open,'' Ramsey said. "He would have just run his route, and if the ball came to him, he would try to catch it. But now, his understanding of sitting in those zones, and finding those holes, he's gotten so much better He's such a big part of our offense and why we've had success.''
The two Peytons want to finish this season on a high note in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. The Jan. 2 game, the only one that day and in primetime against an SEC blue blood like Tennessee, is something that gets everyone excited.
"This is what you wish for, playing on a prime stage on the only game of the night,'' Hendershot said. "You're playing an SEC team, one of the best conferences in college football. There's not much more you can ask for.
"When I was a freshman, we didn't go to a bowl game, and we didn't have anything until spring ball, so this is so much better. That's a lot of gap that you miss, so it's big we get to practice and still have fun.''
Hendershot wants that ninth win in a big way, because it's something that's only been accomplished twice in school history. He loves his role, and wants to do a lot, but he also know there are a lot of weapons and only one ball.
"We have so many playmakers on offense, so I don't even get mad when I don't get many ball but we're still winning football games,'' Hendershot said. "I was happy for us to get eight wins, and it will be great to get the ninth win and make some history around here.''
And once it's done, Hendershot will get right back to work, the first one in and not the last. He's got big goals, and he's prepared to put in the work to make them all come true.
"I'm happy with my blocking, but I still could have done so much better,'' Hendershot said. "That's something I still want to work on in the offseason. We've still got a lot of goals to accomplish here, and I'm excited to be a part of it.''