For redshirt freshman defensive back Ramon Henderson, Notre Dame’s week 10 victory at Virginia was a game of firsts. First career start, first career interception, and better yet, first career game-action at the safety position at any level.
That’s no typo. Believe it or not, prior to being alerted by Irish safeties coach Chris O’Leary on the Tuesday practice leading up to the trip to Charlottesville that he’d be making the switch from cornerback to safety, the 6’1”, 190-pound Henderson had zero experience on the last line of defense.
In the context of Henderson’s performance against the Cavaliers, that’s preposterous. The Bakersfield, California native posted a career-high four tackles, including a half tackle for loss, and added an interception in Notre Dame’s 28-3 suffocation of Virginia.
It was the best game of the season for Henderson, who looked more decisive and in command in his role at safety than he did earlier in the season at the nickel/cornerback spot.
The former Liberty High School standout then added three stops in his second career start at safety the following week against Georgia Tech, a 55-0 Irish victory. Henderson’s seven tackles in the last two games are more than he had in the previous nine combined.
“I really don't know [which position is more comfortable]," Henderson explained. "Honestly, I think at the end of the day I'm just playing.
“I feel like I am a little more free-minded and not thinking as much [at safety]," Henderson continued. "I’ve grown with more confidence in myself, but my coaches have more confidence in me as well. So, I think the push up behind me is helping me play faster and better.”
In the wake of All American safety Kyle Hamilton’s injury against USC, the Irish secondary required reinvention. Hence Henderson’s move to safety along with classmate Xavier Watts, who began the season as a wide receiver.
Ironically, after losing Hamilton at the back end, the Irish have responded with some of the team’s best defensive performances of the season. Notre Dame has not given up a single touchdown in the past three games.
It’s been a collective effort in the secondary between corners TaRiq Bracy, Clarence Lewis and Cam Hart playing at a higher level and Henderson and Watts stepping up alongside seniors DJ Brown and Houston Griffith at safety, who are also playing some of the best football of their careers in expanded roles.
“I think the major change is we figured out who we are and what we can do,” Henderson said in regards to the defensive improvement. “We’re just a team that’s naturally progressing, just like anybody else. We’re all tuned in.
“When I look at Georgia and I see the video of one of the guys saying, 'Aw, we let up a touchdown. That’s too much.’ That’s the same ideal thing for us. We know we’re one of the best defenses in the country. We have to run with that same motto.”
For Henderson specifically, the switch to safety has allowed him to play with more freedom.
“As a corner you're kind of zoned on your own guy or on a direct island,” Henderson noted. “I think me being able to run around, move around and get into some things [at safety] just fits me a little bit more, I guess. But I feel like either way, I can play either position. It's just right now, this is going pretty well for me.”
Henderson is quick to credit the Irish defensive coaching staff, especially his new position coach for putting him in a position to succeed.
“He's a really cool guy,” Henderson said of O’Leary. “He's young, but he’s a very good coach at the same time. A lot of people don't know he runs our third down packages coverage wise, and as you can see on Saturdays we're doing what we do best and it's starting from him. He is a newcomer, he's kind of young, but I think he is doing some veteran things with the way he sets up stuff.”
Notre Dame currently ranks 22nd nationally in opponent third-down conversion rate, holding opponents to a meager 33% success rate.
Henderson also doled out due appreciation for the rest of coaches in the secondary, including cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive analyst Kerry Cooks.
“I can see something and be like, 'Oh, he's running this because Coach Mickens told me that.’ But I can also be like, 'Oh, and he's gonna do that because KC [Cooks] told me this and Coach O'Leary told me that'.
“They just have a real defined eye to every game plan," Henderson continued. "We have a real good idea of what [the other team is] going to do to us, what they can do and what they want to do.”
Henderson’s humility and gratitude extends beyond just the coaches. When recounting his interception against Virginia, a play in which he burst from the hash to the sideline to make a leaping grab reminiscent of Hamilton’s pick against Florida State, Henderson said it all started with fellow safety Brown’s guidance on where and when to shade to one side.
“If DJ didn't tell me to show this, I probably would have showed it too fast and [the QB] probably wouldn't have thrown it,” Henderson said. “But I think me running over there making that play, that's just me. I've been playing football for the longest [time]. I've been making plays for the longest [time]. To me, it's just is another play.”
Henderson has also picked up a thing or two from Hamilton, who has taken on more of a player-coach role in the secondary since being injured.
“That first Tuesday practice coming out for safety, Kyle's over there teaching me how to play man or how to play a certain coverage,” Henderson said. “I’m looking at him, I'm seeing the success he's made for himself and there’s nothing but respect from me. I'm trying to do everything he could do and possibly even more so when he teaches me something I'm gonna listen to him because every time I've seen him do something he's always been right with it.”
Moving forward, Henderson isn’t limiting himself to one spot or another, knowing full well every opportunity must not be taken for granted.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Henderson said in terms of his future position. “From what I’ve been told, Coach O'Leary told me, ‘You're gonna be playing safety for a while.’
“At the end of the day, I have to come back here next summer and try my hardest to win another starting spot again. I still have to come out and compete for either position to play again.”
It’s such self-awareness and ability to stay grounded that has allowed Henderson to learn a new position mid-season on the fly and still effectively produce in a starting role.
According to Henderson, O’Leary’s number one piece of advice to his newest pupil has been simple.
“Play with confidence,” Henderson said. “No one wants to mess up, make a mistake or have an MA [missed assignment].
“With him it's just play fast, just do whatever you're thinking of doing. Even if it's wrong, do it fast. Because at the end of the day, if you do something fast, with our defense, someone's gonna make it up for you. You can shoot the wrong gap, but as long as you're running fast, it's still gonna flare in someone's eyes on the offense, and it's gonna make them react some type of way too.”
While it’s been a strong opening to his career at safety, Henderson isn’t getting ahead of himself after two games.
“I'm learning different stuff every day and practice is the place where I mess up. Practice is the place where I'm getting yelled at, but I think it's good to mess it up now, so I won't mess it up [in the game],” Henderson said.
“Last week [against Virginia], it was great, it worked out. My mindset was, ‘I got to do it again’. I feel like I did alright this past Saturday, I messed up on some things too, but this week I'm just trying to get better, at least 1%. Do as much as I can to get better in this new safety spot.”
If the past two games have been any indication, that mindset is allowing Henderson to perform at a level he had yet to reach previously, which in turn has allowed the Irish secondary as a whole to reach new heights.
“It's a full confidence booster,” Henderson said in response to what his recent success has meant to the rest of the secondary. “We all got each other's back. Just how I think Houston [Griffith] can go do whatever he needs to do and how I think DJ [Brown] can go make a play, they think the same thing about me. And the comfort level is surpassed. I feel like before I wasn't talking to anybody as much, I just felt like the new guy on the block. But now I feel like I've known them forever.”
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