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January 29, 2009
Junior of the Year: Henderson draws coaches north
ST. PAUL, Minn. – The migratory instincts of birds and the recruiting habits of college football coaches are similar: When winter arrives, they both flock to warmer climates of Florida, Texas and other southern states in an annual act of self-preservation.
In 2010, the process could be dramatically reversed.
Well, not for the birds, who will continue to fly south. But football coaches figure to be flying north in uncommon numbers to see 6-foot-8, 315-pound offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, Rivals.com's Junior of the Year Award winner.
Though they're still poring over film from the two big all-star games from this past weekend and assembling their 2009 recruiting classes, make no mistake: Every major-college football coach is aware of Henderson, who has the strength you'd expect for someone his size and the agility you wouldn't.
"It's rare when coaches from Florida come up here," says Mike Scanlan, the football coach at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul. "They have a gold mine of talent [down there], but they're coming up here."
And they will keep coming.
"Our last high-profile athlete was [Notre Dame freshman wide receiver] Michael Floyd," Scanlan says. "[Ohio State coach] Jim Tressel never found a way to our building when they recruited Michael Floyd, and they wanted him badly. Tressel has found a way to get here. I've got a feeling we'll see [UCLA coach] Rick Neuheisel.
"The only time we saw [USC coach] Pete Carroll was when they were recruiting [current Denver Broncos starting offensive tackle] Ryan Harris. That would be the litmus test."
It will be a while before the coaches start rolling in. But the mail already is.
"I've got 500 to 600 letters," Henderson says between bites of a lunch that consisted of cheese sticks, fried potatoes, fruit and pumpkin pie. "It's aggravating. You get so many letters you don't know where to put them."
The compelling questions are which of the letters pique Henderson's interest and where will he continue his playing career. And will he play football?
"He has the good feet of a basketball player," Scanlan says. "I don't think 'Coach K' would court him, but he could definitely play basketball at a high level."
Cretin-Durham Hall basketball coach Jerry Kline agrees. So do coaches at a lot of Division I basketball programs.
"A lot of Big Ten and Big 12 teams have shown interest," Kline says. "Georgia Tech and Florida have called. He had a hell of an AAU season. If he stays where he is at his height and ability, football is his ticket. But if he gets to 6-9 or 6-10, he'll have a hell of a decision."
That's not out of the question. Henderson's maternal grandfather is 6-9. And Henderson is just 16, so he is still growing. But he says he will pursue football.
"I have a better future in football," he says. "There are a lot of 6-8 guys that are a dime a dozen in basketball."
So, that question is answered. The others remain unknown.
He said he's always liked Notre Dame. He likes Minnesota, too. He said he's interested in Florida, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, USC and Texas Tech, even though he didn't know where Lubbock was.
"Is it near Houston?" he asks.
"Man. Texas is a big state," he says.
No doubt Texas Tech coaches would like to convince him that a big man would fit nicely in a big state.
Whatever the case, Henderson knows this time next year he'll face a big decision.
"Me and my family will sit down and talk," he says. "We'll look for education first. I don't know what I want to do, but everybody can't go to the NFL. I'll be looking for what can help me and my future."
In that case, he should look for a school with a strong accounting curriculum. Someday, he'll need to be good with large numbers.
"He'll be a millionaire," says Cretin-Derham Hall volunteer offensive line coach Ray Hitchcock, who earned a Super Bowl ring while playing guard and center with the Washington Redskins for three seasons in the late 1980s. "He's tough and coachable, and he gets what you're telling him."
Maybe that's because he gets an abundance of expert coaching. Jon Alt, a former Kansas City Chiefs tackle, also is a volunteer coach because his son is Cretin-Derham Hall's quarterback.
"Coach Alt tells me to be violent on the field," Henderson says. "Coach Hitchcock is more of a technician."
UNUSUAL TALENT, UNUSUAL COACH
The sign on Scanlan's door says "Guidance Counselor," not football coach. The walls of his small office are decorated with framed photos of Joe Namath, Bob Marley and Carlos Santana.
That's hardly the typical football coach's work space. Of course, he's not the typical coach. Scanlan's graying blond hair flows to his shoulders. His beard, glasses and mellow speech pattern evoke thoughts of John Lennon rather than any football coach.
Yet Scanlan's program is a perennial powerhouse in Minnesota. This season, the Raiders advanced to the state semifinals before losing 28-27 on a failed 2-point conversion attempt. Still, some might question the legitimacy or caliber of Minnesota high school football.
In the past seven years, Minnesota has produced just 14 players who were rated four- or five-star prospects by Rivals.com. Florida has 59 in the 2009 class alone. Texas has 42.
But Cretin-Derham Hall's athletic alumni includes Heisman recipient Chris Weinke, former Miami quarterback Steve Walsh, Harris, Floyd and Major League Baseball players Paul Molitor and Joe Mauer. Mauer was one of the nation's best high school quarterbacks in 2001 and chose Florida State, only to sign with the Minnesota Twins instead after he was selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2001 MLB draft.
"We've had some high-profile athletes," Scanlan says. "You probably have versions of Seantrel in Texas, Florida and California. But when people see Seantrel play, they know he's the real thing."
Some don't even need to see him play.
A Big Ten coach visiting Cretin-Derham Hall two years ago saw Henderson and told then-assistant coach Andy Bischoff, now with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, that he'd offer Henderson a scholarship. Henderson was a freshman and wasn't yet playing on the varsity.
"I told my mother and she was like, 'Wow, you didn't even play varsity yet. How do you do that?' " Henderson says.
Scanlan also thought Henderson would be a special player at first sight.
"I knew as soon as he walked into the door when he was in the ninth grade. He fills up a room," Scanlan says. "He always had that physical presence, but you watch how he moves. A lot of big guys can't move like he can."
"A lot of brain surgeons have popped up and said, 'You have a tendency to run behind Seantrel,' " Scanlan says, laughing. "Tell me something I don't know. We're going to continue to do that."
Henderson can be dominant at the line of scrimmage, and tapes show he is routinely involved in plays 20 and 30 yards downfield.
"He's so physical at the point of attack; once he gets his hands on you, it's over," Hitchcock says. "He has superior size and strength, and he can block out in space on screens. He's good and patient in pass blocking, and he does not reach.
"Young linemen tend to lean and start grabbing at something. He doesn't need to do that. The great ones understand that you're going to get that guy [you're facing] eventually. [Defensive players] want you to lean. He picked that up with no problem."
"Grace" isn't often a term associated with an offensive lineman unless he is spiritual and gives thanks before a meal. But Hitchcock said that adjective describes Henderson.
"He's very graceful, and he moves like a man of lesser weight," Hitchcock says. "Yet he can pack the punch with that size he has. He's a great kid, too, and a joy to be around. My son is in his class. He's just a normal 16-year-old in a grown man's body."
STILL A KID
Somehow, Henderson almost appears lean at 315 pounds. Hitchcock says he thinks with a strict college weightlifting regimen, he could bulk up to 340 or 350 pounds without losing a step of quickness.
The downside of that awesome physical presence is that it's easy to forget Henderson is just 16. That concerns Scanlan. He'd rather Henderson not be considered the nation's No. 1 prospect, but understands that it's likely.
"I don't think it's a fair thing, but there's no getting around it," Scanlan says. "He's handled [attention] well, but think of your ability to handle things as a 16- or 17-year-old. Now, all of the sudden, you're the No. 1 player in the country.
"A lot of players couldn't handle that well, but he has."
That's because Henderson doesn't seek attention. He doesn't see himself as being different than the other students. He doesn't want them to see him differently, either.
"I'm a regular kid, just not in size," he says. "I'm just like everybody else. Most kids treat me like any other kid, but some keep their distance. A lot think I will hurt them. I'll just want to shake hands and they will flinch. It's like, 'Wow, I'm not going to hurt you or anything.' "
He'd rather just blend in to the crowd, which is impossible for him, especially at Cretin-Derham Hall.
"Ours is a predominantly white school and he's a large person of color," Scanlan says. "As much as you might like this place, you wonder what that's like for him. Maybe 15 percent of the school is African-American, and we have 1,300 students. In some ways, it could be a lonely place.
"But he and his mom saw some advantages to being here. We're hard on the students here. We make sure they're on time, their shirts are tucked in and they dress properly. We have high expectations that you have to meet, and he's done a good job in that regard.
"He's not malicious or mean. He's quiet and shy. Of course, when I'm not around, he could be different. But you knew when Michael Floyd was in the room, and not in a bad way. Seantrel is a little quieter and has a low profile."
Not for long. His profile already is rising, and in the next year, it's going to soar. Just like all those planes that will have college coaches flying north to Minnesota to see him.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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