Kevin Gorman: Quadree Henderson hoping to make magic for Steelers on returns
When Quadree Henderson was told by Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin that he would be handling kickoff and punt returns in the exhibition opener Thursday at Philadelphia, it came with a directive.
"My job in this game Thursday is to go in there and catch everything clean," Henderson said, "and make big plays when I get the ball in my hands."
Henderson is excited to showcase his skills as a return specialist, given that the former Pitt star was a consensus All-American in 2016 and is the Panthers' all-time leader with seven returns for touchdowns.
"When I get the ball in my hands, everybody is holding their breath," Henderson said. "They know I can make magic happen, so I'm just waiting for that first punt or kick return, however I get the ball in my hands, to get in open space and it's going to be over."
The NFL plays at a different speed than college, so Tomlin puts little credence in Henderson's credentials, as impressive as they are: He had a 100-yard kick return against Navy in the Military Bowl as a freshman, averaged 15.8 yards on punt returns and 30.5 on kick returns as a sophomore and had two punt returns for scores last fall.
"His resume means absolutely nothing, as does everyone else's in that regard. I just think that that's what's so exciting about getting into stadiums and playing," Tomlin said of Henderson, a Wilmington, Del., native. "I mean, Q is going to be 30 minutes from home, I think. I'm sure it's going to add to the intrigue in his story."
Tomlin is focused on the fundamentals for good reason, as he is a member of the NFL's competition committee and this is the Steelers' first taste of live kickoffs since the NFL changed its rules to limit full-speed collisions. Most notably, the kicking team has to line up 1 yard off the line and is no longer permitted a running start.
"That definitely favors the kick returner," Henderson said. "They're not getting a head start, so everybody is starting even."
Given his history, that gives Henderson an edge. Although his 4.5-second 40-yard dash time was slow by receiver/return specialist standards, the 5-foot-8, 192-pounder has shown an aptitude for fielding punts and explosive acceleration once the ball is in his hands.
And Antonio Brown, who has four career punt returns for touchdowns, is too great a commodity to risk on returns. He averaged only 5.5 yards on 11 punt returns last season, when the Steelers had 20 fair catches. The Steelers also ranked 29 th in the league in kick returns, at 19.1 yards, and that's even after JuJu Smith-Schuster scored their lone return touchdown on a 96-yarder against the Cleveland Browns in the season finale.
No wonder Henderson wants to take advantage of his opportunities.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a guy like me," Henderson said. "There's people that see me as just a return specialist and not as a receiver and return specialist, so you've got to go in there with your head on straight and make plays."
Henderson, however, is way down the depth chart at receiver, behind not only Brown and Smith-Schuster but also second-rounder James Washington, veterans Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter, slot receivers Eli Rogers and Marcus Tucker and free agents Trey Griffey, Tevin Jones and Damoun Patterson.
That's why Heyward-Bey, a special-teams standout, warned Henderson that his standing out on kick and punt returns is his best — if not only — chance of making the Steelers out of training camp.
"That's all he's going to be able to show," Heyward-Bey said. "He can ball out at receiver. That's not going to matter. He ain't going to play receiver once the season starts. He's got to make it happen at punt return. That's just the reality of it.
"It is important for him. I was telling him, 'That's going to be your sticking point. Learn what you have to do at receiver, but you're going to make this team as a punt returner, so make sure your tape's hot when that time comes.' "
Henderson is hoping he can make magic so his tape is on fire.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.