ORLANDO - The Knights will be bringing in one of the nation’s most athletic and rangy cornerbacks to Orlando with Ja’Cari Henderson. He’s a needed piece to the puzzle with the Knights playing so many pass-happy offenses like SMU, East Carolina and the like. Oh, by the way, there’s that UCF-to-the-Big 12 situation in 2023, too.
With the Knights joining a Power Five conference, the need for truly elite defensive backs goes up, especially cornerbacks, the hardest position to recruit in football.
Here’s a look at what Henderson brings to the table for the Knights, based on his senior film with a focus on his play versus Apopka.
Vitals: 6’1”, 163 pounds
High School: Sanford (Fla.) Seminole
Recruitment: Held offers from UCF and Miami, his final two schools, before selecting the Knights on Oct. 25, 2021. Other offers include Georgia Tech, Florida State, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Louisville, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, West Virginia, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, North Carolina State, Maryland and Kansas State among others.
Just like his twin brother Demari Henderson, another UCF commitment, Ja’Cari Henderson is extremely long at the hip, possesses the length that cornerback coaches desire, and has plenty of room for good weight. He will soon weigh over 180 pounds.
His skills are off the charts, but to apply his skills to the difficult position of cornerback the following is most notable. Henderson consistently backpedaled, saw the opportunity to attack a play in front of him, planted just one foot, and went forward with a burst. That's a natural ability that cannot be taught; he’s been twitchy since birth.
When changing directions, Henderson does so quickly. It’s really unique to watch for a player over 6’0” tall. Usually players that change direction so well are 5’6” to 5’10”. Lots of smaller scat running backs, slot receivers, and some cornerbacks, too.
Also of note, Henderson’s ability to move laterally really shows itself. Against Apopka he certainly made plays after making hard cuts to his left or right and zeroing in on a ball carrier or receiver. Again, a natural movement that a person is born with. His fast-twitch muscle fibers are essentially about as good as it gets.
Against Apopka, a team that does not throw that often, Henderson bit on an out-and-up route. That’s part of his nature to be aggressive. Sometimes you win a rep and sometimes you lose. There’s something more important to note.
He just kept on rolling. Henderson took on the next play like it was the first of the game. That’s his mentality. It allows his instincts to shine because even the talented Apopka receivers need to run good routes to beat him, and of course the same with a quarterback. Henderson will pick off any signal caller that gets out of line and stares down a receiver, much like the Winter Park quarterback did a few weeks back.
Overall, he plays downhill and he plays fast. Henderson sees an opportunity and quickly hits the switch to go after the football.
Situational Football for the Knights
Henderson’s size, athleticism and natural football IQ allow him to be a boundary cornerback, field cornerback, or slot cornerback. While that may seem like a lot, he’s quite capable.
Most importantly, those assets can be mixed and matched with the opponent that the Knights play each week. When UCF goes up against a team like SMU with an excellent overall passing scheme, perhaps Henderson will line up in the slot to take away a uniquely talented player.
Then, against another team with a big wide receiver, perhaps he lines up over him and simply plays cover one (man defense) all game long. For these possible scenarios alone, Henderson’s value climbs much higher than what one will read on some recruiting site. He can potentially change the play calls and formations of opposing teams. That’s rare, but he’s that type of talent.
Areas to Improve
There will be plenty of opportunities for learning the absolute best hand techniques, when to use bail technique as opposed to side straddle, and how to properly play trail technique. In college, there’s simply more time to focus on the little things as opposed to being a high school player.
Henderson’s biggest challenge will not be when he’s in front of a teammate in practice or during a game. It will not even be when he’s with an assistant coach for the Knights. It’s when it’s film time. Knowing your opponent is a must at the college level.
A cornerback that knows certain formations often lead to deep shots and/or a specific player will be receiving a pass are the same defensive backs that are more likely to eventually be paid and play on Sundays.
NFL Hall of Fame inductee Deion Sanders was an avid film watcher. Yes, he could run a 4.2 forty (and sometimes faster) and he was an excellent leaper with long arms. Those components are fantastic. What separated him from other great players stemmed from being the total package.
Sanders watched his opponents before each game and had a pretty good idea of when he was going to be in a position to jump a route and take it to the house.
That’s the most important trait Sanders possessed. His habits allowed those pick-sixes to transpire. Will Henderson be that type of player as well?
It’s up to him. If he does go down that path and studies film religiously, he’s going to have a great shot being an NFL cornerback one day.
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