Football

On the bright side: In his first season at Syracuse, veteran coach Donnie Henderson aims to turn the struggling secondary around

Ankur Patankar and Andrew Renneisen | The Daily Orange

Donnie Henderson has a ring.

It may not be easy to tell from the way he acts and how he never wears it out in public, but he definitely has one.

“He’s not that type of person (to brag),” strong safety Shamarko Thomas said. “He’s just a down-to-earth person. He just wants to teach us like he teaches them, and he will never say he has a ring over us.”

Henderson earned a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens as an assistant defensive backs coach. During that stretch, he coached the likes of Chris McAllister, Rod Woodson and Ed Reed. He parlayed that successful stretch into the defensive coordinator job with the New York Jets from 2004-05.

During those two seasons with the Jets, Henderson’s defense lined up in practice every day against an offensive line coached by none other than Doug Marrone.

The relationship that developed between the two for those seasons with the Jets served as a launching pad for Henderson’s arrival to Syracuse in February as the defensive backs coach.

“That’s the No. 1 reason I’m here,” Henderson said. “Let’s be honest, it’s because of Doug Marrone. My relationship with him and my relationship with him as far as football coaches, No. 1. We’re on different sides of the ball. We’ve shared the camaraderie, so make no mistakes about it — it’s because of Doug.”

Still, a relationship alone isn’t enough to get a coach a job. Marrone’s decision to bring Henderson on to his staff is fueled as much by his prowess as a defensive coach as it is by their friendship.

“All of the coaches obviously bring a lot to the table, or they wouldn’t be here,” Marrone said. “Donnie’s had a great track record not only as a defensive coordinator but, more importantly, as a defensive back coach — players that he’s coached and he’s developed.

And again, it’s a great relationship for myself.”

In the 1999-2000 season, the Ravens boasted one of the NFL’s all-time great defenses during their Super Bowl run. That team featured a pair of Pro Bowlers in McAllister and Woodson in its secondary, but a player Henderson coached two seasons later is the one who leaves the Orange’s defensive backs most awestruck.

“When he told me he coached Ed Reed, I was like, ‘Dang, you can turn my game into that?’” Thomas said. “So it’s very good that we’ve got him in here because he’s teaching us things that we’ve never seen here on the field.”

In the 2002 NFL Draft, Baltimore selected Reed with the 24th pick of the first round. During his rookie season, Reed had five interceptions. And in 2004, he set the NFL record with a 106-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Henderson is now using Reed’s playmaking ability as an example for his current players, who grew up watching Reed do the extraordinary on a regular basis.

Now, Henderson hopes Syracuse can eventually have a player with similar ability to Reed’s in the secondary. Last season, SU had a tendency to surrender the big play in the passing game last season.

Henderson hopes to reverse that script this year. He expects his secondary to be the one making the big plays.

“The way coach Henderson’s system is, he just makes sure he puts you in the right place to make plays,” cornerback Keon Lyn said. “It’s just on you to make those plays.”

Freshman defensive back Wayne Morgan already feels he has grown exponentially as a player in the lone summer he has spent with SU.

Henderson taught his players that on deep balls, they should play the role of the wide receiver: focusing on catching the ball. The importance of having the insight of a Super Bowl-winning coach is something that’s not lost on Morgan.

Aside from playmaking, Henderson’s biggest focus during training camp has been fostering greater chemistry within his unit. Marrone had similar ideas for the team as a whole, and that’s why the Orange spent a week of training camp 80 miles north of Syracuse at Fort Drum going through military-style training.

In addition to daily football practices, SU spent the week working with the soldiers to learn the importance of teamwork, leadership and communication.

While the Fort Drum experience was a unique one for everyone involved, it held a special place in Henderson’s heart.

From 1992-97, Henderson was a safeties and defensive backs coach at Arizona State. For three of those seasons, Pat Tillman was a linebacker for the Sun Devils. Tillman went on to play briefly with the Arizona Cardinals, but he cut his NFL career short to serve with the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

While deployed, Tillman was killed in friendly fire.

Henderson always had a deep appreciation of Tillman’s life, but the week at Fort Drum gave him an even greater understanding of what it was like for him post-football.
“I don’t know if I could compare being at Fort Drum with that situation, but I did get a strong feeling, a strong appreciation of what our troops do,” Henderson said. “It just makes you take your hat off to them.”

Tillman’s story reminds Henderson of just how small football is in the grand scheme, but it’s still his life.

It’s his only focus, just as it must be for the Orange to succeed this season. Henderson has his work cut out for him in trying to transform a secondary that was repeatedly beaten last season.

“Last year was that team,” Henderson said. “… The thing that I’m going to try to get them to do is just be fundamentally sound and play with consistency. And here’s the bigger one: You’ve got to play with confidence.

“I don’t believe one play can win or lose a game, but I believe one play can win or lose a guy.”

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