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Tigers’ Henry made most of redshirt year

By Alex Maminakis

The Journal

CLEMSON — Following the departure of the winningest senior class in ACC history — which tied for the nation’s winningest class of all time as well — the Clemson Tigers have turned their focus to the future.

Clemson defensive end K.J. Henry goes through warmups prior to a March practice in Clemson. (Courtesy of Tigernet.com)

There are positions to be filled, starting jobs to be won and leaders to emerge for a Clemson team fresh off its second national championship in three years, and the Tigers got a good start to 2019 during spring practice, which culminated in the spring game on April 6.

When asked following the game if there was any one position on the team that needed to take the biggest step ahead of the fall, coach Dabo Swinney responded quickly: “D line, no question.”

All four of the Tigers’ starting defensive linemen from last season — along with reserve tackle Albert Huggins — are gone, each hoping to hear their names called later this month at the NFL draft.

For those returning along Clemson’s defensive line, potential outweighs game experience, but the talent is unquestionable.

While he watched classmate Xavier Thomas shine as a true freshman last season at defensive end, K.J. Henry was waiting in the wings, putting in the work during his redshirt campaign to make sure he could make an impact when his time came.

Following a productive spring camp, Henry believes he’s ready.

“I took that redshirt year to try to get stronger, get better, and I think I accomplished that goal. I gave myself a good foundation to build on going into the summer,” Henry said after the spring game. “Our main goals for this spring were to take steps forward. Blocking everything out, incorporating the new guys — had a lot of mid-year (enrollees) come in this spring — and just building a foundation for a new year. Like (Swinney) said, we’re wiping the slate clean and trying to get ready for the next season.”

Henry was a highly recruited defensive end in the 2018 class out of Winston-Salem, N.C., as a consensus top-30 player in the nation and one of the best at his position and in his state.

While classmates Trevor Lawrence, Derion Kendrick, Justyn Ross, Lyn-J Dixon and Thomas, among others, saw significant playing time as true freshmen, Henry took advantage of the new redshirt rule and played in four games while redshirting.

But now, he’s excited for an expanded role on Clemson’s defense — which is looking for depth along the defensive line — and an opportunity to compete for a starting job at end, likely opposite of Thomas.

“When I came in, it was definitely just the adjustment to college,” Henry said about what the hardest part of his freshman year was. “But I would say the playbook, honestly — I think from last year to this year, that’s my biggest improvement, being comfortable out there on the field. … I know personally, just feeling comfortable, knowing what I’m supposed to do and being able to play free and just play some football — I definitely feel that growth aspect from last year.”

Henry played a total of 39 snaps last season against Furman, Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest — his hometown school — and made nine tackles, including two for loss, with a fumble recovery.

Taking advantage of that early playing time while also redshirting, he said, was a great benefit to him and his growth.

“I think the biggest thing I got out of those (four games) was, No. 1, just getting the butterflies, because five stars, no stars, it doesn’t matter — when you get out in front of a fan base like that, it gives you some butterflies,” Henry said. “I think definitely by game four, when I was back home in Winston-Salem playing Wake Forest, I was getting a little bit more comfortable out there. So now that that’s out of the way, I think I’m just ready to go.”

Henry will compete with Thomas, Justin Foster, Logan Rudolph and Justin Mascoll, among others, at defensive end this season as the Tigers look to replace the production of Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell.

Henry had the opportunity to learn from those veterans along the defensive front last season, and he knows there are big shoes to fill along the line this fall.

He also knows the history of defensive linemen at Clemson is a rich one, but that doesn’t add any more pressure for him to excel. He’s just looking forward to getting on the field and starting his own chapter.

“At the end of the day, I’m always going to be a guy who just tries to play my best,” he said. “Whatever comes with that or doesn’t, that’s just what it is. But obviously we’ve had great guys come through here, had a lot of good ones just leave, so obviously it’s going to be a goal of mine to try to add to it.”

alex@upstatetoday.com | (864) 882-2386

Follow on Twitter @alexmaminakis