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Aaron Donald’s wingman: Rams defensive line whisperer Eric Henderson

Energetic position coach helps L.A. develop young defensive line talent

The Los Angeles Rams had an eventful offseason since exiting the playoffs in the NFC divisional round in January.

They moved on from franchise quarterback Jared Goff, trading him to the Detroit Lions along with two, first-round selections and a third-round pick for gunslinger Matthew Stafford.

Head coach Sean McVay lost seven members of his coaching staff, either through hiring by other teams or a mutual parting of ways and hiring a replacement (OL coach Aaron Kromer).

Those departures included successful defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, now the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers.

And the Rams lost several frontline players through free agency, including tight end Gerald Everett, safety John Johnson III, center Austin Blythe, receiver Josh Reynolds, slot defender Troy Hill, running back Malcolm Brown and defensive lineman Morgan Fox.

But one of the important constants that remained for the Rams is defensive line coach Eric Henderson. He received a promotion to run game coordinator and will be tasked with developing a young defensive line group behind starters Aaron Donald, Sebastian Joseph-Day and A’Shawn Robinson.

As Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported, defensive line is one of the weaker position groups in this year’s draft. So, it will be up to Henderson do develop young players like Greg Gaines, Michael Hoecht, Marquise Copeland, Eric Banks and Jonah Williams into players that can regularly contribute on game days.

Henderson says he’s up to the task.

“I think when you do things the right way and treat people the right way, and people understand the work ethic and mindset to the task that you put forth, I think people can trust relying on you or speaking on your behalf when the opportunity presents itself,” Henderson said.

In a wide-ranging interview on the debut of the Speed Option Podcast a few weeks ago, Henderson discussed his journey from a player to a coach, and how that shaped his approach to coaching.

Henderson grew up in New Orleans to a single parent. Henderson’s mother Ramona lost her battle with cancer when he was 9-year-old, leaving him to watch over his younger siblings.

Henderson, 39 had to grow up quickly and develop a sense of urgency for what he wanted to do in his life. That led to football and his frenetic play on the field as player who approached his job with enthusiasm and grit.

“I always prided myself in being a high-energy guy,” Henderson said. “It happens naturally. But I think because of the experiences that I had in life growing up, football was always an outlet for me. And so, as much as I probably would not speak as much in public settings or whatever the situation may be, when you’re on a football field it’s ‘lights out’ literally. You’ve zoned out. You’re having fun with the guys. You’re talking trash, and that carries over.

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“As a coach now, being able to apply that same energy and to get that out of your guys, I think that’s important.”

Henderson’s approach last season turned into a slogan for his group called “Dawgwork”, which was adopted by the entire team.

“Every year, you’re trying to look for different ways to touch the group,” Henderson said. “How can we get better? What’s going to be the new focus or mindset going into this particular season. And for me, after doing some research and talking to the guys and understanding what we can do as a group to get better, we talk about being dogs, right? And how you truly want to approach the task at that particular time.

“I wanted a new level of energy, some juice going into training camp. AD (Aaron Donald) is always taking about being a big dog and all of that, but all we do is work. As a defensive lineman all you do is work, and so to be able to join that together and have a dog work mentality as defensive line has been huge for us.”

Nobody embodied that mindset more than the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Aaron Donald.

“I love playing for him,” Donald said about Henderson “He’s one of those coaches that understands how to communicate things to his players. As far as teaching certain techniques that I felt like is going to take my game to another level, just having two years with him and having two camps with him and being able to take his coaching and the things he’s trying to teach me and the way he breaks down film and things like that.”

One of the many things Henderson likes about working with Donald is his work ethic, along with fact that Donald wants to be coached and get better. The two have developed a kinship and bond over their two years together that allows Donald to trust Henderson to help him improve on and off the field.

“It’s extremely fun when you’re working with the that guy who’s arguably the best in the world at what he does,” Henderson said. “But the best part about it is the human being. He makes my job easy because of he way he was raised. So, I always want to just thank parents, his mom and his dad for raising such an awesome young man.

“He’s a guy that has all the tools, when you talk about the above-the-neck approach, knowing what he needs to do to get himself in the best shape or the most mentally prepared on a weekly basis. He does all those things. … He doesn’t ever want to be outworked.”

Just as other coaches like Los Angeles Chargers defensive line coach Giff Smith and former Cincinnati Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes did for him, Henderson had an opportunity this offseason to hire an assistant defensive line coach in Marcus Dixon.

Like Henderson, Dixon brings with him a unique background and story that will add to the defensive line group. Dixon served as the Bill Walsh minority internship when Henderson was the assistant defensive line coach for the Chargers.

“I just saw he way this guy worked, his approach, demeanor and the way he worked with the guys,” Henderson said. “As an ex-player, having played in the league for seven years, he understands that. But he’s able to separate the two and understand how to handle himself professionally as a coach.”

With Donald leading them, Henderson expects the defensive line group to continue to serve as the grimy of the Rams.

“You can dictate the outcome of the game,” Henderson said. “And that’s what I talk to the guys about up front. We can dictate the outcome of the game by our mental approach, the physicality that we bring to the game on a weekly basis.

“The things that we do should be able to dictate the outcome of the game if we’re on our screws.”