'We need you': Pitt's Quadree Henderson was coveted by Steelers, looks to make mark
As Quadree Henderson was checking in for Steelers rookie minicamp Thursday, it didn't take long for him to see a familiar face: former Pitt teammate James Conner.
"He saw me, and he had a big smile on his face," Henderson said Friday. "He did my little airplane gesture when I score a touchdown towards me and gave me a big hug and told me, 'Let's get to work.' "
An undrafted free agent receiver/returner, Henderson will get to work with Conner as well as ex-Pitt teammate Matt Galambos at the same UPMC Rooney Sports Complex where they practiced at so many times as college athletes.
"Basically just walking through the right door this time," Henderson said with a laugh. "The facilities are connected. Just walking in the next door, you still see (Pitt) coaches, old teammates. I just moved a step up to the NFL now, but the layout is the same. (The Steelers) have a bigger weight room. That's the only thing. But everything else is the same, just a different side of the building."
A 2016 consensus All-American returner, Henderson knows where his mark most likley will be made in the NFL.
"I see myself as a returner first," Henderson after the first rookie minicamp session, "a receiver second."
Henderson was that in college, returning seven punts or kickoffs for touchdowns.
"I feel like I can flip the field position, no matter what," said Henderson (5-foot-8, 192-pounds). "Even when it comes down to crunch time, need a big return to get good field position, I feel like I am that guy."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin agreed.
"He told me he knows what I can do in the return game, so what we do with this is we will work mainly on receiver," Henderson said. "They already know what I can do in the return game, so this week it is all about proving myself and getting better at receiver."
Henderson took reps at the "Z" position, the outside receiver spot opposite Antonio Brown in the Steelers' scheme. It was a bit of a surprising role. Players with his size and lateral quickness often are put in the slot.
"I feel like once I prove myself that they will see that I can play inside and outside," said Henderson, who declared for the draft with a year of eligibility remaining at Pitt .
With Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster entrenched in the lineup, James Washington drafted in the second round and a host of other receivers who have been with the organization, Henderson has quite the depth chart to scale.
But Tomlin repeatedly has shown a willingness to carry a return specialist and a desire to improve in the return game. That makes for a clear path to a 53-man roster spot for Henderson.
That, however, was only part of what compelled him to sign with the Steelers during that frenzied late-Saturday afternoon at the end of the draft when dozens of players and their agents are making decisions.
For Henderson, though, it was relatively stress-free.
"That process wasn't really a decision. I knew I wanted to come here," he said. "As soon as they made the call, there were 10 picks left in the draft, the seventh round, I got that phone call. They said, 'We need you.'
"And that's like coming back home. I was happy, elated to be a Steeler. You see them every day, so I can't wait til OTAs to work with Antonio Brown, the best receiver in the game to me, to pick his brain and learn little things. Get here August and September and show the team what I got."
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.