COVINGTON, Ga. — For Jaquan Henderson, the speed and athleticism was never a question.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Georgia Tech sophomore had all of that even while he flew around the football field making plays as a four-star prospect out of Newton High School.
But that’s the thing — when you fly around, it’s easy to make plays. When you have to stop, read and then react, Henderson says, not so much.
Perhaps that was one of the most encouraging signs in an otherwise fairly uneventful Georgia Tech spring game last Saturday — that Henderson, now going into year No. 2 at Tech and year No. 1 with new defensive coordinator Nate Woody, is working in a system that lets him do what he and coach Paul Johnson feels like he does best.
“Jaquan’s a really good athlete,” Johnson said. “Last year, he was just overwhelmed trying to figure out all the different schemes and all the stuff. One of the neat things about what we’re doing now is it’s really simple, and you can get your guys who can really run out there, and the athletes, and they can just play.”
The advantageous nature of the defensive shift was evident for Henderson, particularly around the first part of the second quarter during Tech’s spring game.
It was then that Henderson started accumulating tackles in a flurry. He finished the game with five, but had a little burst where he recorded three stops in three straight plays. One of those tackles featured Henderson wrapping up Jordan Ponchez-Mason by the legs, dragging him down with the help of freshman and Peach County product Quez Jackson — another promising young prospect at linebacker.
The duo joined others like senior linebacker Brant Mitchell as regulars in the offensive backfield. Granted, Henderson, Jackson and the rest of his Blue Team teammates weren’t playing a White Team offensive line rife with experience. But the flashes were enough to give both Henderson and Johnson a taste of what to expect in the 2018 season with a corps of athletic, active linebackers.
“That’s the way the defense is set up,” Johnson said. “That’s what it’s designed to do. To get guys to make plays behind the line.”
Said Henderson: “I think we played fast. Everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing in this defense, and we’re just out there making plays.”
It’s a much different kind of defense than the read-and-react style attack former defensive coordinator Ted Roof employed. Woody’s brand of 3-4 defense stresses speed, fast play and an emphasis on creating turnovers — a recipe that allowed Woody to enjoy a Sun Belt Conference-leading defense at Appalachian State for three straight seasons.
Call Henderson a fan of the new D.
“The difference is we just run two basic calls,” Henderson said. “Not a lot of thinking. That’s the main thing. Guys out there are making plays and guys are being put in position to make plays. And I’m the type of guy, I don’t like to think. I just like to go out there and play fast, and this defense fits my style.”
And that fact makes Johnson anxious to see how his Newton County product at linebacker can elevate his game come fall.
“I think Jaquan can be really good rushing the passer in this defense,” Johnson said. “I’m excited to see him use his speed and I’m looking forward to seeing him play.”