More to Pitt's Quadree Henderson than returning kicks
When opponents watch Pitt video, No. 10 is high on the list of players to watch.
Quadree Henderson wears the number, and too often defenses see it only from the back. In two seasons, he scored 11 touchdowns, five on returns. Seven of 10 touchdowns last season covered distances ranging from 50 to 100 yards.
When former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden was watching Pitt video with quarterback Nathan Peterman this spring, one of his first questions was, “Who's that No. 10?”
What Gruden perhaps didn't know is Henderson earned All-American honors as a kick returner from five services.
But Chad Jones II, the quarterback at Alexis I. Du Pont High School in Wilmington, Del., could tell a different story about Henderson and his jersey number.
Henderson wears it as a tribute to Jones, a survivor for the past four years of Stage IV neuroblastoma, a pediatric cancer.
Henderson, a junior, and Jones met playing youth football. The quarterback and wide receiver are separated in age by five years, but Henderson, 20, always felt a bond with Jones. After the cancer diagnosis, the bond was strengthened by prayer.
“From him being so strong one day, laughing and joking, to a couple of months later to find out he was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma, the highest stage possible,” Henderson said, still in awe over the proximity of the two events.
“He was always a good kid. So, I felt like he needed another support system other than his mom and his dad and his little brother. Just me being a bigger role model for him, I told him I'd put him on my back. That's why I changed my number to 10, to honor him.”
That was Henderson's sophomore year at Du Pont. “I still wear it to this day,” he said.
He even has plans to wear No. 10 when he gets the opportunity to play in the NFL.
“If I can't get No. 10, I was thinking in my head, get No. 82. Eight plus two equals 10.”
“It was warming to show he cared,” Jones told ESPN.com last year. “He knew No. 10 was important to me, and the fact he continues to wear it even after that year leaves me speechless.”
Jones has been to Heinz Field for Pitt games, and Henderson makes sure he returns the favors.
“I stay in touch with him on a daily basis,” Henderson said. “Every time I go back home, I make sure I check up on him and just do something with him and let him know I'm still with him in the long run.”
Back at Pitt, Henderson is bonding with another younger player, sophomore Maurice Ffrench. Coaches are hoping Ffrench can make teams pay if they try to kick away from Henderson.
“I could care less if I get kicked to this year,” Henderson said. “If it's not coming to me, it's coming in front of me or they have to kick it out of bounds and it's a touchback.”
Ffrench is eager for the opportunity.
“If he doesn't get it,” he said, “I'm going to take it back to the crib, so the other team is going to be in some trouble.”
Ffrench (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) has the speed to give Pitt a dual threat on kickoff returns. His 77-yard run against Syracuse was Pitt's longest run from scrimmage last season.
“I'm not the only explosive player on the field,” Henderson said.
Pitt coaches are looking for more explosion from Henderson in the passing game. His goal is to improve on his modest receiving numbers from last year: 26 catches for 286 yards and a touchdown.
Henderson's offseason work in that area showed up on the practice field Thursday when he made a running catch on a throw from quarterback Max Browne.
“He has a cannon arm,” Henderson said. “He just threw it up, I put my head down and I kept running. I looked back up, the ball was there. I put my arms out, and the ball just happened to drop right there.”
Cornerback Avonte Maddox was the antagonist, pushing him and trying to rake the ball loose. Henderson fought him off.
“I held on tight to it,” he said.