At this time one year ago, Michigan State senior safety Xavier Henderson believed he was preparing for one final season as a Spartan, and that he would hear his named called in the 2022 NFL Draft.
“Crazy how life works sometimes,” Henderson said with a smile last week, on the first day of spring practice back in East Lansing. “I’m glad to be back. I’m excited. I’m just ready to get better. “
The Spartans had an excellent season in 2021 – finishing 11-2, beating Michigan in a Top 10 matchup at Spartan Stadium and capping it all with a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl victory. Henderson had good season as well, compiling 96 tackles, three passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble.
But as the season began to wind down, the senior’s mindset began to change.
“I was leaning towards coming back towards the end of the season, after the Penn State game,” Henderson said. “I didn’t really make a final decision until after the bowl game, but I was leaning towards coming back. I was pretty sure I was coming back going into Atlanta. “
What changed for Henderson?
“I went into the season last year thinking, ‘Shoot, I’m one of the best in the country,” Henderson said. “That’s my mindset, and I still think that, I’ve just got to put it on tape. I’ve just got to put it on tap every game. I had a pretty good first half of the season, and I’ve seen on the media where I had a bad half of the season – I know what I’ve done wrong. I wasn’t perfect in the first half of the season anyway. “
Henderson was the unquestioned leader of a secondary that struggled mightily in 2021. Those struggles don’t rest on the senior’s shoulders – as noted above, he had a strong individual season – but Henderson feels like there is more for him to accomplish and prove at the college level.
“I’m just trying to refocus, rededicate back to the game, back to my body. And I’m just excited to get better and build on what we did last year, ”Henderson said.
In addition, Henderson there’s more for him to prove to NFL scouts. Following the 2021 season, Henderson, fellow returnee Jayden Reed and eventual early departures Kenneth Walker and Jalen Nailor each were given grades by professional scouts.
As Henderson explained it, not even Michigan State’s best player was above criticism.
“The amazing season, how Kenneth was the best running back last year, they’re nit-picking him and it’s crazy to see how much the NFL dives into it,” Henderson said. “So, there’s just so much stuff to get better at.”
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The now fifth-year senior said he’s already hard at work on those areas where NFL scouts think he needs improvement.
“I’ve got to pick a couple different things, like certain stuff I was working on in winter conditioning, certain stuff I’m working on, football-wise, now in practice that I’m going to do,” Henderson said. “I told Coach [Harlon] Barnett what the NFL wants to see out of me, and he thinks of ways that he can help me out so I can get there. “
Henderson expects to play both strong safety and free safety in the Spartans’ secondary in 2022. He’s willing to be placed anywhere on the field that helps Michigan State have success. The NFL wants to see more of the senior playing the middle of the field, but Henderson said the team’s needs come first.
“We’re just trying to get guys, we’re just trying to get dudes, the best players, to get on the field any way possible,” he said. “I’ll get my chance to play there, but whatever the coaches need me to do, I’m going to do that and everything else will fall in line.”
As far as preparing to play two different positions in Michigan State’s secondary, Henderson said he wasn’t concerned.
“Strong safety and free safety, in our defense, you just kind of flip a little switch,” he said. “It’s all the same techniques. You’ve got to be good with your brakes, you’ve got to be good with your eyes, you’ve got to be good tackling, that’s really all it comes down to… Little different things you think in your head when you ‘ re playing a different position, but I think I can do that. I’m able to flip the switch. “
As mentioned above, Michigan State’s secondary was a glaring area of weakness for the Spartans last season. Henderson said improvement isn’t just about him becoming a better leader, it’s about teaching his teammates how to lead as well.
“I think it’s my turn to empower other guys to lead, because we got the guys that can and dudes know they can. They’ve just need to feel comfortable doing it, ”Henderson said.
“Once we’ve got five DBs out there leading all together… we’ll be a lot better because of it. Right now, I feel like what I can do to help is just empower other guys. Maybe I can talk less and let other guys step up and talk more. I think that will help us out, and we’re just going to get better every day in our technique. “
When a unit improves as a whole, the individual players look better within that unit too, and that can help get Henderson where he wants to be one year from now, sitting in front of those same NFL scouts with the results of his improvement, clear and obvious, on tape.
“It’s just getting your draft stock towards the end of the year, that’s when it really matters,” Henderson said.
“I can say I’m the best in the country, but if the NFL doesn’t think so then that’s not what it’s going to be. I talked to my parents, talked to the coaches, and they encouraged me just to do whatever I think is best. And I just felt that coming back would be a better way for me to raise my draft stock, and I wanted to build on what we had going on last year. “