UK Football

Kentucky linebacker Henderson goes from afterthought to 'attack' mode

Sequence of a missed sack as  Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Khalid Henderson (22) had Florida Gators quarterback Will Grier (7) in his arms for what would have been a big sack in the fourth quarter but he got out and threw incomplete,  as Kentucky fell to  Florida 14-9 on Saturday September 19, 2015 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Sequence of a missed sack as Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Khalid Henderson (22) had Florida Gators quarterback Will Grier (7) in his arms for what would have been a big sack in the fourth quarter but he got out and threw incomplete, as Kentucky fell to Florida 14-9 on Saturday September 19, 2015 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Khalid Henderson was almost an afterthought.

As fellow senior linebacker Ryan Flannigan sat out with an injury early this season, much of the talk seemed to center around Flannigan's return to his rightful spot in the starting lineup.

Henderson was more like a placeholder, a seat filler, until the real star arrived again.

"It hurt me a lot," said Henderson, who started the first three games of the season at the weakside linebacker spot before Flannigan came back and started the next six.

"Coming from being a starter and then being taken out of that position, it was either you could go left or go right," he described. "I chose to be right and take advantage of the opportunity and just take every day with a chip on my shoulder and come out and be correct in all phases."

There was a collection of missed sacks early in the season that littered his game film and other places he knew he needed to get better. So instead of pouting about Flannigan being back, Henderson went to work.

As Kentucky deals with a four-game slide and some players struggle, there are guys like Henderson who always play hard no matter what, coaches said.

When asked about the steady players on the team even through difficulties, Henderson's name was the one that immediately popped into Coach Mark Stoops' head.

"A guy you have to give some credit to is a guy like Khalid Henderson," Stoops said previewing UK's game at Vanderbilt on Saturday. "He and Ryan have had a great battle for two years. They both have done some very good things at times and some things not so well.

"Both of them have kept a good attitude and worked extremely hard and gone out and played hard."

Henderson managed nine tackles against Georgia last week, his highest total since the Florida game on Sept. 19. That didn't surprise defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.

"Khalid is a very competitive player," Eliot said. "He's a very competitive person in general, and that's what we love about him."

Henderson, who is tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 49 and second on the team in tackles for loss with five, said he doesn't know any other way to be.

He's been competitive "just all my life," he said quietly in his matter-of-fact way.

"I had very little growing up, so I just try to take advantage of everything I have here," he said. "It was a blessing getting here, so I just try to take that opportunity."

When things get rough for Henderson, he places a call to his mom or his grandfather and they remind him to fight for the things he wants.

Sometimes he'd talk to former Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson, now with the Tennessee Titans.

"Avery helped me through a lot of down times and just how to maintain focus and just keeping up with the playbook and attacking every single day," Henderson said.

But mostly when things got difficult for Henderson the past couple of seasons or even in the middle of this season, he had a long talk with himself.

"You just look yourself in the mirror every day and just attack," Henderson said. "You can't look back, you can't wish you would have done this, wish you would have done that, wish you would have made that play. You've just got to take every day with a chip on your shoulder."

Some time in the weight room last offseason was good for Henderson, too. The Mableton, Ga., native said he put on about 15 pounds and is playing comfortably at 240 now.

"That's always been a big issue with me," he said of keeping on the weight. "Being a young guy playing so much football early it was kind of hard to get those gains and get that progress, so I just really honed in on that."

Kentucky's coaches feel like they've found a good mix in Flannigan, who has 41 tackles in six games this season, and Henderson.

Said Eliot, who coaches the linebackers: "Ryan has his skill set that is different than Khalid's, but Khalid just goes out there and competes every day and gets better and just makes plays and knows where he's supposed to be."

And whether he's supposed to be in the starting lineup or not, Henderson doesn't know. He's just trying to make the most of his chances when he gets them.

He's been doing whatever he can to help lead Kentucky through its bumps and setbacks — the way he got through his own.

"We've just got to go and attack the week," Henderson said of his team. "Don't attack the next three games. Attack the game coming up and just keep playing hard like you've been doing."

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