Quadree Henderson was Penn State’s Achilles’ heel in its matchup with Pitt last year — and the Nittany Lions know it.
The consensus 2016 All-American accounted for 201 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in Pitt’s 42-39 win over Penn State, using his speed and vision to kill the Nittany Lions in open space.
Henderson presents the same problem on Saturday.
“Quadree Henderson, in my opinion, is the issue in the game,” Penn State coach James Franklin said in the opening statement of his Tuesday press conference. “He’s the guy you go into the game and you say, ‘Who’s the guy that can be a game-changer or a game-wrecker?’ — however you want to describe it. He’s that guy.”
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But this go-around, Penn State feels prepared for “that guy,” who’s being imitated by KJ Hamler and Josh McPhearson on Penn State’s scout team.
Prior to Penn State’s 2016 trip to Heinz Field, Henderson was a little-known commodity. The Delaware native had 22 touches — 18 kickoff returns, two catches and two rushes — as a true freshman in 2015.
Henderson housed a kickoff return the week before against Villanova, but no one could’ve predicted he’d go off and tally 96 return yards, 58 rushing yards and 47 receiving yards against the Nittany Lions.
Now — after being embarrassed in 2016 — the Nittany Lions know what to expect out of Pitt’s not-so-secret weapon.
“They know he’s an explosive player,” Nittany Lions cornerback Grant Haley said, referring to Pitt’s offense. “They use him the correct way with those jet sweeps, screen passes, crossing routes. Just try to get him in open space. That’s when he’s at his best.”
Added Franklin: “We’ll have to have a plan for him to try to limit the impact that he’ll have in this game.”
On special teams, that plan seems simple for the Nittany Lions. It falls on kicker Tyler Davis and punter Blake Gillikin to get the right distance, hangtime and direction — allowing Penn State’s coverage teams the opportunity to bottle Henderson up.
It’ll be difficult to execute against the nation’s leader in kick return yards (1,166) last season, but otherwise straight-forward.
Defensively, keeping Henderson in-check is a little more complicated.
Former Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who now holds the same position at LSU, baffled Penn State’s defense in last year’s meeting. Using a combination of shifts, motions and misdirections, Canada’s offense racked up 341 rushing yards and three passing touchdowns on only 11 completions.
It was as effective as it could’ve been, and even though Canada is no longer running the Panther offense, Franklin and Penn State expect much of the same from new coordinator Shawn Watson.
That means plenty of touches for Henderson.
“As corners, we have to stay disciplined in our coverage,” Haley said. “Just read our keys, see our fits. We think they’re going to do things similar to last year, and they had success last year. We’re trained for that, and we’re ready for those, especially from (Henderson).”
Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda agreed, emphasizing gap responsibility and each member of the defense fulfilling their role.
Stopping Henderson and the Pitt offense doesn’t fall on one player; it’s a collective effort.
Cabinda — who was sidelined by an injury in 2016 and could do little but watch Henderson carve up his teammates — understands that better than most.
“It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. They’ll trade and shift to make you move guys out of position and make guys’ eyes be in a place they shouldn’t be,” Cabinda said. “In order to have success, we’re going to have to read our keys, trust our keys and make sure guys are doing their job.”
From both a special teams and defensive perspective, that’s what Franklin expects. The coach doesn’t want to see Henderson streaking down the sideline or gliding into the end zone again.
He knows it won’t be easy, but Franklin’s Nittany Lions are ready for whatever Henderson throws at them.
“I think it’s exciting, and I think our team will approach it the same way,” Franklin said. “It’s a tremendous challenge.”