CJ Henderson froze when the ball left Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight’s hand. He left his man and watched as it spun through the air, splitting a pair of Michigan receivers and landing in his waiting hands.
The Miami Columbus alum, who ran a 10.4 100-meter dash in high school, knew what to do when it did.
He sprinted past would-be tacklers, separating enough to trot into the end zone by the time he reached it. His interception return for a touchdown gave No. 17 Florida its second lead against the No. 11 Wolverines on Saturday. It was the freshman’s first career interception. And he wasn’t done.
With 1:50 left until halftime, he used his track speed to race down the sideline to cover a punt. He arrived moments after Michigan freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones secured the ball.
Earlier, Peoples-Jones had juked past three Florida defenders to turn a 55-yard punt from UF’s Johnny Townsend into an 18-yard return. On his next opportunity to make a play for the momentum-starved Wolverines, who had given up a pair of pick sixes after dominating Florida in the first quarter, Henderson grabbed him and shoved him out of bounds at the 7-yard line.
Henderson finished the game with two tackles.
A couple of other freshmen defensive backs from South Florida also contributed to UF’s loss. Although not necessarily in a good way.
Safety Shawn Davis, playing in his first game since winning a state championship with Miami Southridge, let Michigan’s Tarik Black get behind him for a 46-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. Davis was in for injured starter Nick Washington, who returned later. Davis finished the game with three tackles.
It wasn’t entirely clear if Davis was supposed to cover Black, but he was left looking backwards and swatting helplessly as Black made the catch.
Marco Wilson, an American Heritage-Plantation alum, added three more tackles.
Saturday’s season opener in Arlington, Texas, held special meaning for two Florida players for very different reasons.
Wideout Tyrie Cleveland, who played his high school football down the road in Houston, played for his aunt and cousins still in Houston, who took on four inches of flood water from Hurricane Harvey. During the week leading up to the game, Cleveland said football serves as a distraction, but when practice was over, his mind was back on Houston.
“I’ve sent millions of texts,” he said. “I’ve sent a lot to different families and different people that are friends.”
Linebacker David Reese, meanwhile, is from Detroit and was recruited by Michigan. He committed to the Wolverines before rescinding and signing with Florida instead. He still knows many Michigan players from Detroit, and he grew up rooting for the Wolverines. Playing them, he said, just meant more.
“I wish it was in the Big House,” he said before the game, “but you can’t get a better stage than Texas.”
Walk-on defensive back Garrett Stephens was the main special teams attraction for Florida by getting his hand on a punt in the second quarter. The punt rolled 12 yards and set the Gators up in Michigan territory, though they couldn’t convert.
Punter Johnny Townsend averaged 56.7 yards on six punts, and kicker Eddy Pineiro hit one of two field goals. The game marked Pineiro’s first miss since Oct. 29 against Georgia.