When Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said the other day that his defensive coordinator, Donnie Henderson, tends to go off script, he was referring to Henderson dumping a game plan that wasn’t working.
But off script also describes Henderson as a football coach and a human. Ask a question and you’ll get a direct, honest answer with little to no coach speak. That was the case earlier this week, when Henderson followed Edwards into an interview room full of reporters.
“All right, here we go. This should be fun,” Henderson said.
And the next 20 minutes were.
Asked about conference realignment, Henderson said he thinks there will eventually be three super conferences.
Asked about the impact of players making money off their name, likeness and image, Henderson said the “quarterbacks are going to be making more than anyone else. Well, I shouldn’t say that. USC, I mean, everybody is making money over there. I wish we had some of that money.”
And asked how good ASU’s defense will be, Henderson talked about the challenge of replacing a talented secondary and other players who transferred — the usual things talk about in August. But then he said something unusual.
“How good will we be? Real good. Look at that, they are writing that one, boy. As soon as I said that the pens went to writing. I’m going to be in trouble for that. That’s OK.”
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Henderson never thought he would be front and center when he joined Edwards as an analyst in 2020. He was content to stay in the background, analyzing defensive players and schemes, but that changed a year ago when three assistants were placed on leave in the wake of the NCAA investigation. Henderson became the defensive backs coach. He went from being the guy who sat quietly in the back of the meeting room to the guy in front conducting the meeting.
And the role changed again in February when he was promoted to defensive coordinator, replacing Antonio Pierce, a central figure in alleged rules violations, who joined the Raiders’ staff.
It’s Henderson’s second stint at ASU. He coached the secondary under Bruce Snyder from 1992-97 and then took a job as the defensive backs coach with the Ravens. With Marvin Lewis, now a special advisor to Edwards at ASU, as the defensive coordinator, the Ravens built one of the best defenses in NFL history and won the Super Bowl in the 2000 season.
Eventually, Henderson became Edwards’ defensive coordinator with the Jets for two years and made several other stops as a coach, including in 2010 with the Cardinals.
It wasn’t a career goal to do it again. Henderson took the ASU job partly because he wanted to give the program continuity.
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The Sun Devils’ defense was fairly successful in 2020 when Pierce and Lewis were co-coordinators and last season when Pierce took full control. Henderson is keeping the same system and verbiage. It will look a lot like last year’s defense, he said, with one notable difference.
“We didn’t blitz much last year,” he said. “You might see a little more. I’d like to be a little bit more aggressive.”
While on Snyder’s staff, Henderson had a reputation for being tough, demanding and having little patience for mistakes. Players didn’t have to ask where they stood with him.
That much has not changed over the decades.
“Old-school approach,” cornerback Timarcus Davis said, when asked to describe Henderson’s coaching style. “Something you’d see the old-school teams have. He coached with the Ravens and that’s a legendary defense, one I always looked up to. He wants us to have that attitude, that swagger about us.”
On the field, Henderson isn’t interested in having long discussions with a player about what just went wrong.
“I believe in giving directions and not corrections,” he said. “As an athlete, you didn’t try to make that mistake. What I don’t want to do is start asking you why it happened because you don’t know. Instead of getting into all these long conversations, I’m going to say, ‘Just do this next time and you’ll be fine.’ We end all that talking back and forth.”
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But like anyone who has spent 40 years in one profession, Henderson has adjusted to changing times.
“When I first came here in ’92, those kids wanted to do nothing but win,” he said. “They didn’t have all these little instruments.”
“The phone mainly,” he said. “They didn’t have them back then. They get a lot of information from this, and they always think it’s correct. You have to tell them to put it down.”
With players, Henderson said, he likes to stick to this script:
“Just tell them directly. Don’t pull the punches. Make sure you don’t cuss and make sure that when it’s all over, they understand the reason.”
Not everyone handles that direct style well, especially early on in a relationship. Through the spring and summer, Henderson liked what he saw from his defense, but he said he is still learning what his players can do.
He must have a good idea, or he wouldn’t have predicted the Sun Devils’ defense is going to be “real good.”
“That’s the fun part of the job,” he said, “you can say stuff before it happens.”
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