One of the best plays from UW’s blowout win over Austin Peay Saturday is buried on the stat sheet.
It goes down as just an ordinary incomplete pass in the books.
But Aaron Henry’s bone-jarring hit on Ashlon Adams in the second quarter of Saturday’s game is much more than that. It’s a memorable play that sticks out on a day where the Badgers had highlight after highlight after highlight to choose from.
“That play sparked the defense,” senior captain Culmer St. Jean said.
It’s also a play that makes one thing very clear about Henry: His days as a cornerback are behind him and he has now officially completed the transition to safety.
Switching positions at this level isn’t as simple as making a quick change on the depth chart – it takes time and unfortunately it doesn’t always work.
Bret Bielema and the UW coaching staff knew they had something special in Henry when he debuted as a freshman in 2007. It was a major steal in the recruiting process to get Henry out of Florida – his home state – and he excelled as a cornerback from the start.
But in 2008 Henry was forced to redshirt due to a knee injury. As a result, the promising corner’s progress was halted.
Now, at a position where there’s constant stopping and starting and a need for instant change of direction, knee injuries can limit corners long-term.
That’s exactly what happened to Henry. His confidence was shot with the knee injury stuck in the back of his mind and it was clearer he had taken a few steps back. Henry needed a fresh start and thanks to his good size – 6 feet, 204 lbs. – a move to free safety made perfect sense.
So after seeing limited action as a nickel back in 2009, Henry entered 2010 as the starting safety alongside senior Jay Valai.
He brought his coverage skills as a former corner to the position and we knew he had the raw talent to make a name for himself but Henry needed to find a new level of physicality and recapture his confident mindset to succeed.
Last week against Arizona State, Henry delivered a blow in the endzone that turned heads. Saturday against Austin Peay his hit sent shockwaves through the stadium.
Adams came free across the middle, Henry lowered his shoulder, and in an instant the APSU tight end was sprawled out on the turf with UW’s junior safety standing over him. Incomplete.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is how you play safety.
“It put the patent on my safety position, especially making that transition from cornerback,” Henry said of the hit after the game. “Everybody wants that killer shot.”
Physicality and confidence were the two things Henry needed to develop and they were in full force on that defining play.
“Pretty much my whole life I was always not known as a great tackler or the guy who’s going to knock somebody out,” Henry said. “But hopefully I can change people’s opinion of me.”
Well Aaron you’ve changed this columnist’s opinion.
Say what you want about the Austin Peay governors and the fact that they were severely overmatched (big time programs playing FCS opponents is commonplace in college football whether you like it or not) but for those that diminish the hit due to that lackluster opponent, think again. Adams is a 6-foot-4″, 225 lb. tight end – no undersized slouch coming across the middle (thanks Revis), and to de-cleat an opposing receiver with that kind of size, no matter his route-running or catching ability, entails a high degree of difficulty.
It’s hard to teach a player to execute a play like that in a game situation and Saturday showed us that Henry has the natural instincts necessary to keep those hits coming.
Now, Henry needs more than one devastating hit to establish himself as an impact safety but consider this:
Through four games the Badgers have been lined up correctly on just about every down so far this season – that’s thanks to Henry who has replaced Chris Maragos as the signal caller from the back end (if you think that job’s a given, just ask the Badgers of ’08 who lost to Ohio State on a late touchdown when the defense had no idea where to line up).
Arizona State, UW’s toughest opponent thus far, who hung right with the 4th ranked Oregon Ducks, had no completion longer than 18 yards at Camp Randall. That’s also thanks to Henry who serves as the Badgers’ last line of defense and the man tasked with limiting big plays.
And the Badgers’ lone defensive touchdown of the year? You guessed it, Aaron Henry is once again the man to thank as the free safety scooped up a fumble and found the endzone to blow the UNLV game open.
You see, Henry isn’t worrying about his once-injured knee, he’s no longer unsure of himself and his abilities at his new position.
In 2010, he’s playing fast and he’s making plays.
With one playmaker out for the year in linebacker Chris Borland, UW needs the remaining pieces of its defense to raise their games in his absence.
Fortunately, it looks like there is a budding star at free safety.
Max is a senior majoring in journalism. How pumped were you after Henry’s huge hit Saturday? Let him know at email@example.com.