COVINGTON, Ga. — During workouts over the summer, Newton High players were running 110’s — that’s 110-yard sprints — in a sweltering Peach State heat.
While a national 400-meter track star, a U.S. Army All-American receiver and a bevy of other D-1 prospects littered the patchy field, one undersized linebacker was ahead of the pack on every last rep.
Jaquan Henderson doesn’t mind grinding.
“The boy won’t get outworked,” Rams assistant coach Joshua Skelton said.
“After about 19 or 20 sprints, Jaquan shouted, ‘Ya’ll going to have to kill me to take me off this field,’” recalled Kevin Barnes, another Newton High coach.
Always smiling. Always leading.
Henderson’s love for football started at a young age.
His father, Joc, worked him hard, teaching him the fundamentals and skills to become a successful player. Henderson starred on the pee-wee fields, but it was an unorthodox lesson at home that ultimately served as a omen for his future as a thumping linebacker.
“When I was a kid, about eight or nine years old, all my friends had been to Chuck E. Cheese’s but I hadn’t,” Henderson explained.
“I was raised all on football. So my dad told me one day, ‘Son, since you haven’t been to Chuck E. Cheese’s, if you knock down this tree I’ll take you to Chuck E. Cheese’s.”
Knock down this tree. Only not with an ax. Or a saw.
“Me as a kid, I was very excited. You know how kids get excited when they’re about to get something.
“So my dad said, ‘Knock down the tree.’ And I did what my dad told me to do and I went to Chuck E. Cheese.”
At nine years old, Jaquan Henderson tackled a tree.
“I wasn’t that big, but it was big for a kid. I still tackled that tree,” Henderson said, smirking.
On a brisk fall afternoon, Henderson, wearing an orange Tennessee t-shirt underneath his practice jersey, is leading the Rams again, dominating practice with his energy and enthusiasm. As Newton prepares for a playoff game against an undefeated team, the Vols commit nearly intercepts a pair of passes during red zone work. Henderson looks at his hands in disgust for dropping one ball before dancing and laughing with his teammates after another pass breakup.
“I don’t just play football for me, but I play for my family,” Henderson said.
“I really just love the game. It’s a chance to release all my problems. It’s built my character, being on the field with my guys and going to war with them every Friday, it really means a lot to me. So when we’re doing 110’s, whatever, I give my all because I know on Friday night’s they’re going to give their all for me.”
Henderson is taking that same relentless approach to his recruitment. The 3-star linebacker remains committed to Tennessee, but he’s doing his due diligence to be certain he’s made the right choice.
The 6-foot-2, 208-pound prospect took an official visit to Michigan State on Oct. 29-30. Henderson is taking another OV to Nebraska this weekend.
“It doesn’t hurt to go out there and look,” Henderson explained.
“Just to see. Make sure you’re making the right decision. The officials it really shows me a lot. Explore. See how the schools are. See if I’m missing out (on anything). Just really seeing what they have to offer.”
The Spartans seems to be Tennessee’s biggest competition, as Henderson’s whole family went on the visit to East Lancing. They’re selling the versatile defender a chance to see the field early and play several roles for Mark Dantonio.
“They’re telling me I can come in and playing right away,” said Henderson, who added that the trip to Michigan State was a great experience.
“Just the way that they want to use me. More like a linebacker covering a slot receiver. In some schemes, playing some safety. Basically using all my abilities and athleticism.”
Henderson’s future college position remains uncertain, as he’s played a variety of spots for the Rams this season. Henderson has lined up at cornerback, safety and outside linebacker at various games, producing at all three spots.
“I don’t even know myself,” he said laughing when asked what position he’ll ultimately play.
“I’m confused myself sometimes. Wherever a school decides to put me, I just want to be a guy that can show off my abilities. Show what I can do.”
Henderson will take an official visit to Tennessee in January, bringing his entire family to Knoxville for the first time.
The trip holds a special meaning for Henderson’s mother, Sandy, as she was a former high school track star with a scholarship to Tennessee but was unable to attend college after getting pregnant with Henderson’s older brother.
“My mom loved Tennessee, but she never actually got a chance to visit, so when I take my official, it’s not only going to be for me but for her also,” he explained.
“It’s in the back of my head everyday. When we talk about it, she gets very excited. Just smiling ear-to-ear. Talking about, ‘I can’t wait to go there.’”
Since committing in July, Henderson has visited Knoxville once, returning in October for Tennessee’s loss to No. 1 Alabama. It was his first game at Neyland Stadium. He loved it.
“The atmosphere,” Henderson said.
“It was crazy. It was crazy. I didn’t get the results that I wanted. We lost, but still though, it was a great experience for me. I really enjoyed it.”