Michigan State senior safety Xavier Henderson is not ruling out a return to East Lansing for a fifth season, but that’s not where his focus is at in the days preceding the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, Ga.
“I’m still contemplating a little bit, and that’s not really something I want to talk about right now,” Henderson said. “That’s the least of our concerns right now. We’re worried about Pitt.”
Henderson, a team captain and four-year starter, has been the most reliable contributor for a much-maligned Michigan State secondary. On the season, the senior has 94 tackles, an interception, three pass deflections and a forced fumble
Due to a free year of eligibility in 2020 because of COVID-19, Henderson has the option to return for 2022. But if this is in fact the senior’s final game in the Green and White, defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton hopes Henderson will have a memorable game in the Peach Bowl.
“No doubt. Love to see him have a big game,” Hazelton said. “X is our best leader and one of the most fun guys to be around. He's a great communicator, and we're excited and hopefully he can make some of those plays too.”
Henderson’s leadership has been needed, as the Spartans’ secondary has faced bouts of adversity throughout the season. Michigan State has given up the most passing yards in the country, both overall and on a ‘per game’ basis.
“As a defensive backfield, we think we have something to prove,” Henderson said. “We know we have something to prove, not just to other people but to ourselves, that we can play a really solid game of football – a consistent, four quarters game of football.”
Henderson said the Spartans struggles have not been due to a lack of talent, but in a lack of consistent execution.
“We’re here for a reason. We’ve got guys who can make plays. It’s just about going out there and doing it and executing,” he said. “Watching the film, taking care of your body, and just getting out there and making plays on the ball, and then tackling dudes.”
Michigan State’s has faced a plethora of talented wide receivers this season – Purdue’s David Bell, Penn State’s Johan Dotson and Ohio State’s three-headed monster of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. However, standing on the opposing sideline on Thursday may be the best receiver in the country in Pitt’s Jordan Addison.
“I think he has a similar play-style to Dotson, from Penn State, a little bit, and maybe a little bit of David Bell, the way he catches the ball,” Henderson said of Addison. “He’s just really smooth with his route-running. I’m sure he’s fast, I know he’ll be fast when we get out there, but he doesn’t look like he needs to run too hard. He looks smooth, kind of like Dotson, he runs smooth. He goes and attacks the ball pretty well…a lot like Bell attacking the ball.”
Addison won the Fred Biletnikoff Award this season, awarded to the nation’s top wide receiver. He has collected 93 receptions for 1,479 yards and an eye-popping 17 touchdowns on the year.
“It’s going to be another challenge that we’ve got to face, and it’s a good opportunity for us,” Henderson said.
Fair or unfair, Michigan State’s defensive effort could be judged on how well they defend Addison. That puts a lot of pressure on the Spartan secondary, which has been under attack by opposing offenses all season.
In what has been a frustrating season for the unit, Michigan State’s back end has a chance to finish the year on a high note, and nothing would make Henderson happier.
“We’re excited,” he said. “It’s another opportunity, another challenge that we want to take full advantage of.”