University of Florida

Despite being quiet, this player’s leadership at UF is clear by his intensity in games

Florida defensive back CJ Henderson (5) stops South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley (19) Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Gainesville.
Florida defensive back CJ Henderson (5) stops South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley (19) Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Gainesville. AP

Among a myriad of outspoken players on the Florida Gators’ roster, there’s one whose play often speaks louder than his words.

It’s cornerback CJ Henderson. His assertive appearance on the field is met with a soft-spoken, reserved temperament off it.

“He doesn’t really say much, but just the way he preps and the way he goes about his business on a day-to-day basis definitely stands out,” receiver Josh Hammond said.

And when Florida’s defense has needed someone to make an effort play at critical times, Henderson has been that guy all season.

It showed in his performance against South Carolina, particularly in the second half, where he made timely tackles and an interception at the end of the game to seal the Gators’ 35-31 comeback win over the Gamecocks.

Midway through the third quarter, South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel broke free down the field. He was too fast for Florida’s defensive front and too strong for safety Donovan Stiner, who bounced off Samuel’s 6-foot, 210-pound body as he tried to make the tackle.

He saw nothing but space as he approached the UF 10-yard line.

What Samuel didn’t see was that Henderson was right on his heels. The sophomore never gave up on the play and had gained enough speed to wrap Samuel up at the seven-yard line and save the touchdown.

“The thing about CJ is he gives relentless effort all the time,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He’s a really good player. He’s a guy that takes a lot of pride in his work, and he practices like that, honestly. That’s why he made that play and gave us a chance to bring him down.”

Henderson has been the centerpiece of Florida’s secondary since cornerback Marco Wilson suffered a torn ACL in Week 2 against Kentucky.

“It’s a very tough loss,” Henderson had said of Wilson’s season-ending injury. “I’m praying for my brother to come back, a speedy recovery.”

But Henderson, a Miami native and Columbus High alumnus, has embraced the challenge of stepping up in the place of Wilson, who totaled 34 tackles and a team-high 10 pass breakups last year as a true freshman.

Henderson has built on a 2017 campaign that saw him record 22 tackles, four interceptions and become the first true freshman to return an interception for a touchdown in consecutive games (against Michigan and Tennessee in the first two weeks).

“He’s just continuing to grow, and I think he’s becoming a more vocal leader on that back end ever since Marco went down,” Hammond said. “I think he’s done a really good job of trying to help the young guys like Trey Dean and C.J. McWilliams and Brian Edwards, just those guys, be ready for when their number’s called and be ready to make those plays when they have the opportunity.”

Henderson leads the team with seven pass breakups and has totaled 28 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles (tied for second) this year.

Henderson’s teammates admire his humility, and Grantham says he hasn’t seen many like him.

“He’s the best corner I’ve ever coached,” Grantham said. “He’s competitive. He plays hard and he does his job. He works and certainly glad he’s on our team and looking forward to continue to develop him.”

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