Jason Henderson had always been a big Penn State guy.
Growing up in eastern Pennsylvania made it easy for Henderson to support the Nittany Lions. The success of their football and wrestling programs made it even easier. Henderson said it would have been a dream to suit up in Happy Valley in college.
That dream flirted with reality during his prep football career when Penn State was showing interest in him. Ricky Rahne, who was the Penn State Offensive Coordinator at the time, was heavily involved in recruiting Henderson. In December 2019, however, Rahne was named the next head coach at Old Dominion University.
It didn’t take long for Rahne to give Henderson a call. The call led to Henderson being offered a scholarship, which was the first scholarship Rahne had offered in his new position. Turns out it was Henderson’s first scholarship offer, as well.
“That was one of the greatest things ever,” Henderson told HERO Sports in a recent interview. “He was recruiting me a little bit at Penn State and then in high school I found out the news that he was going to ODU … the next day I got a call from Coach Rahne and he offered me my first scholarship, too. It was a blessing.”
There’s no overstating how important the relationship between the player and the coach was in Henderson’s commitment. But oftentimes family knows what’s better for you even more than your own self, and Henderson’s family knew ODU was going to be the right fit in large part because of the coaching staff.
That was a main factor in Henderson’s decision.
“It became a point where my mom and my dad both really fell in love with the coaches at ODU, and that’s obviously a big thing for me, too, because my mom, my dad, and my grandfather — they were the biggest people in my recruiting process, and for them to like the coaches made it simple for me,” Henderson said. “I wanted to go somewhere that my parents were comfortable with because obviously, they’re my No. 1 supporters.”
Those relationships ultimately guided Henderson to the Sun Belt, where he’s now the top linebacker in the league. Even at the top, expectations remain high:
The junior’s 186 tackles last season led the FBS, were 39 more than the next closest player, and were third-most in a single season in FBS history. He also broke the Sun Belt and ODU single-season records. On top of that, Henderson added 10 tackles for loss and three pass breakups. His play led to being named second-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America, Phil Steele, USA Today, and Fox Sports. It was the first such honor for a player in the program since ODU joined the FBS in 2014.
It was a massive uptick in production from his freshman to sophomore campaign. A lot was learned throughout and after his freshman year that helped him make that leap.
“The leadership we had my freshman year was huge,” Henderson said. “And the spring after my freshman year, I got to dig into the playbook and understand what I was doing within the playbook and it allowed me to play more comfortable, and by playing more comfortable it allowed me to fly around to the ball.”
While Henderson’s instincts and comfort on the field helped him play faster, everything else slowed down. It was a result of the preparation he put in in the offseason.
How much slower did the game feel?
“Incredibly slower,” Henderson said. “Freshman season I’d find myself during plays going through almost like a mind blank. I’d see something I wasn’t familiar with … and my instincts just weren’t there. Last year, I was able to pick apart what was happening on the offensive side of the ball, which allowed me to make plays.”
It’s hard to argue that Henderson’s wrestling background didn’t help his instincts get to where they’re at. His successful prep wrestling career saw him finish 5th in the 195-pound bracket his junior year before a shoulder injury led to an early exit at the state tourney his senior year.
Wrestling has helped prepare Henderson for what he’s done on the football field, especially mentally.
“Wrestling has been critical to my football career. The biggest thing my dad ever told me was wrestling is going to make you a better football player,” said Henderson, who’s now listed at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds. “My dad and my coach had always stressed that after you wrestle, everything in life is going to be so much easier … there’s so much that wrestling teaches you that prepares you for being on the football field, and all the aspects off the field that will help get you through life.”
ODU will be looking to bounce back from a 2022 campaign where it went 3-9. Henderson knows he and the team need to have that type of mentality to flip the script. He’s familiar with what’s needed to push through and improve. There’s always room to improve and even with the breakout season Henderson had last year, it seems he hasn’t scratched the surface of what he can accomplish.
He knows what needs to be done for both he and the Monarchs to get to where they want to be.
“The biggest thing is forgetting about (last season),” he said. You’ll never be able to improve if you’re stuck on what happened in the past. We’ve been able to forget about whatever our record was last season and focus on what we want this season. Nobody’s worried about what happened last season. Everybody’s only worried about the upcoming season and how we want it to go for us.”