You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
10 Apr 2008
by Doug Farrar
If Boston College's Matt Ryan is the lead dog in this year's draft class of quarterbacks -- and there's no doubt that he currently is -- there are three others who have been near the pole position at various points in their careers. Louisville's Brian Brohm, Delaware's Joe Flacco and Chad Henne of Michigan are potential franchise quarterbacks -- and potential journeymen. At least, that's what the experts say.
It wasn't supposed to be this way for Henne. He was the one destined for the accolades, the sure-thing first-round draft position, and the bright NFL future. Rated as quite possibly the best high school quarterback in the country as a senior in 2003, Henne started his very first game for the Michigan Wolverines and enjoyed the best season by a true freshman quarterback in Big Ten history. His play in 2005 and 2006 just added to his resume, and his 2007 season was supposed to place him in the hunt for the Heisman Trophy as his team contended for greatness.
Reality was an entirely different matter. Any hope the Wolverines had of taking the national championship disappeared on September 1, when Appalachian State pulled off one of the greatest upsets in college football history by beating Henne's team, 34-32. As if the shock of the opener wasn't bad enough, Henne, who started every game in his first three years, began racking up injuries at a frightening rate. The one that haunted his season was the separated shoulder suffered against Illinois on November 20. This caused him to sit out the following game, returning just in time to re-aggravate an earlier ankle sprain. In what could have been a lost season for himself and the team, Henne took shots in a shoulder that kept popping in and out in order to keep on playing.
That toughness was rewarded by a stellar performance at the Senior Bowl. Henne redeemed himself in the eyes of many, showing pro-level command during practices and throwing two touchdowns in the game. This established him firmly into the top-to-middle portion of the second round in the eyes of most analysts -- certainly not what he expected earlier in his career, but a decent indicator that plenty of people believe that Chad Henne can lead an NFL team.
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1985, Henne is proud to be a part his home state's quarterback legacy. "With the Marinos, the Montanas and the Unitases ... (there's) definitely a great tradition from Pennsylvania," he said in a recent interview. "You learn something about it in the growing-up process and hopefully you can become one of them some day. It's a big part of your life if you come out of Pennsylvania. We pride ourselves on that. We always play Ohio in an All-Star game called 'The Big 33 (All-Star Classic)' -- the top 33 players from Pennsylvania and Ohio. We've got a lot of good football here, and a lot of great players have come out of here."
In four years at Wilson High, Henne set the Pennsylvania District III records for passing yards and touchdown passes (7,071 and 74) and was at or near the top of every possible list compiled to rate high school prospects. He played in the Big 33 and the 2004 U.S. Army All-American Game, competed in track and basketball, and had, by his own estimation, "65 to 70 different offers" from colleges.
"The top five that it came down to were Michigan, Penn State, Miami, Tennessee, and Georgia," he says. "I picked Michigan because of the tradition at quarterback, and the school, and getting to know Coach (Lloyd) Carr, I felt it would be a great opportunity to play for him. My quarterback coach, Scot Loeffler, recruited me heavily. He was a quarterback at Michigan in the early to mid-1990s. He got me in, and I just fell in love with what he was doing and how he does it."
Whatever happened, it worked right away. Henne started his first collegiate game, a 43-10 win over Miami of Ohio, throwing for two touchdowns. The hits kept on coming. There was the 87-yard game-winning drive he led against Minnesota, the four-touchdown performance in a comeback triple-overtime victory over Michigan State, and the four-score encore in the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines lost the game to Texas by one point, but the NCAA had been put on notice: This kid was for real. With 240 completions in 399 attempts for 2,743 yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, Henne put up an opening act for the ages.
"(Loeffler) prepared me very well for it -- just knowing the process," Henne says. "He had coached the Tom Bradys and Brian Grieses of the world, so he had the experience. He could tell me, 'Just be yourself and be disciplined. Just go through your progressions and hit the first open receiver. Be decisive, and be a leader on the field -- just go out there and play your game.'"
"We had a lot of great players, and just to be around them -- we had Braylon Edwards at that time, and we had a lot of great senior leadership on that team," Henne adds, when asked how he was able to succeed right away. "They guided me for the first four or five games, and once I started to get the hang of it, being the leader of the offense and the quarterback of that team, I started feeling a lot more confident. Things got better, and I learned how to prepare, and things just kind of went on from there."
Henne's sophomore and junior seasons did little to tarnish his reputation. He cut down on his interceptions, throwing eight each in 2005 and 2006, and his junior year looked like a precursor to greatness when he finished 26th in the NCAA in passing efficiency. The word "Heisman" was used in connection with his name more than once in the 2007 preseason, and expectations were high for Henne's Michigan team. The loss to Appalachian State started a free-fall that gave Henne more than he bargained for.
"Going in, we were ranked either fourth or fifth in the country," Henne says of the loss. "We had a great offense coming back with key players. We definitely went into that game overconfident. It definitely showed on the field -- we thought we could just run down the field and score at will, and that didn't happen. They had a great offense, and some key players that shook up our defense, and we got in the hole. That was the first real test -- to see what kind of team we were. Could we come back from a deficit or a loss?"
"After losing that game, our senior leadership came through," he continues. "We had to wipe that from our minds -- it was an embarrassment to ourselves and to the program, but we still had a lot to play for. That was the key point that we made."
What he was to play with, however, was the string of injuries that compromised his effectiveness. Between knee, ankle, and shoulder problems, Henne suffered his worst statistical year to date as his team worked to make something out of a season that came up lame out of the blocks. It got even worse when Oregon humiliated Michigan the following week in a 39-7 thrashing. Henne threw an interception in the game's opening drive and hurt his lower leg later on. Physically, the worst was yet to come.
"I injured my shoulder in the Illinois game -- separated it and got an injection to numb it up so I could still play," he says. "It was definitely hard for me to keep going under center, because my shoulder kept sliding in and out. It wasn't the greatest feeling I've ever been through, but I just went though it week by week. I couldn't really practice at all -- I could only come out on Thursdays for walk-throughs and to throw five or ten balls. There was so much pain; I could only throw with an injection. I played that way all year, but I wanted to see what I could do, and hopefully guide my team to some wins."
Henne said that the game plans didn't change because "I asked the coaching staff not to change it up for me. I'd go out there, and I'd do as much as I could. We stayed similar to what we did -- we kept the deep ball in there and I fought through the pain."
The Wolverines finished the 2007 season with a 9-4 record, and Henne closed his college career with a 41-35 win over the 12th-ranked Florida Gators on New Year's Day in the Capital One Bowl. Though he threw for three touchdowns in the game, Henne's two interceptions, three sacks and one intentional grounding penalty outlined the scouting debits that Michigan's all-time leading quarterback will take forward with him. Questions about his decision-making and mobility kept him out of any first-round estimations, but his Senior Bowl week showed bright flashes of the Chad Henne so many expected in his senior season. His leadership ability with the North team in practice, and his two touchdown passes in the game itself, provided a nice bounceback from a season in which Henne felt himself to be a forgotten man.
"Just going out there and being healthy and just showing the scouts that I'm the same guy I was before my senior season. The Florida game and the Senior Bowl hopefully brought back my stock and (I was able to show them) what they are looking for in a quarterback. I have the same potential and hopefully they realize that. I'm the same person and can still play the same way."
NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang says that while the issues that some have with his abilities are warranted, "Henne is the most physically talented passer in this year's draft. He boasts one of the draft's strongest arms and accuracy to all levels of the field -- a combination that makes him a fit in every NFL offense. Due to his arm strength, trajectory, and deft touch, he ranks among the elite deep ball passers, as well."
"The concern with Henne is two-fold," adds Rang. "There is a perception that Henne struggles under pressure. Losing all four starts against rival Ohio State is perhaps an unfair manner in which to assess Henne's performance, but it is one that some scouts will use. In my opinion, he proved his mettle in upsetting Florida in the Capital One Bowl to close out his and Lloyd Carr's career and by enjoying a dominant performance throughout Senior Bowl week.
"The perception that Henne struggles with pressure, however, is legitimate. He has a tendency to press when things go wrong. He will hold on to the ball too long, at times, and took needless sacks throughout his career rather than throw the ball away. Because of this tendency, Henne's other liability -- his lack of foot quickness -- is a slightly greater concern than normal. Henne senses pressure and will step up in the pocket to avoid the rush and complete the pass, but struggles to get outside of the pocket and is very little threat to defenses to scramble."
Henne addressed the mobility issue in our interview. "A lot of (analysts) question me getting outside the pocket and making throws on the run since, at Michigan, we didn't throw a lot of bootlegs or throw on the run. Hopefully, I extended that out at the Senior Bowl and the Combine. I made a lot of different throws during my Pro Day where people saw that I could throw on the run and be accurate."
Former NFL scout Tom Marino told me that while Henne has some finishing work to do ("He has a tendency to eyeball receivers and needs to develop better throwing touch. He will throw into some very tight windows."), he can develop in to a solid starter at the NFL level.
FO's Russell Levine, Michigan alum and our resident Seventh-Day Adventurist, had this to add: "I watched the guy take just about every single snap of his college career, albeit with a biased eye. A couple things about him stand out. One, he has an NFL-ready arm. Not just a "can throw it 70 yards" arm, but can throw the deep out and the skinny post over the LB and in front of the corner (before the safety gets there) arm.
"He also played in pretty much a pro-style offense, which is part of the reason why Michigan quarterbacks have all been able to at least play at the next level if not excel there.
On the downside, his accuracy is inconsistent. He spent much of his sophomore year throwing to what Brian Cook of Mgoblog referred to as "Tacopants", who was not-so-affectionately known as Jason Avant's imaginary 11-foot-tall friend. Henne really improved as a junior and senior (when healthy) but still tends to airmail the open guy from time to time, and also comes up with the occasional head-scratcher of an interception."
Last week, four teams made their way to Ann Arbor to work Henne out -- the Buccaneers, Seahawks, Dolphins and Falcons. Though the West Coast offenses run by Tampa Bay and Seattle would provide serious complexity, Henne said that he's got a head-start in that area.
"When we first went into meetings (preparing for the Senior Bowl with offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who coached the North squad with Lane Kiffin's Oakland staff), mostly all of the terminology was the same as what we ran at Michigan. I know a lot of teams run the West Coast and obviously I'm accustomed to that and a pro-style offense. Hopefully, that will be an easy adjustment when I get to the next level." Visits to Baltimore, St. Louis, and Washington are next on Henne's agenda.
He has displayed the very highest level of pure potential, and been brought back to earth by different shades of adversity. If the upside has defined him, the downside has toughened and shaped him beyond the first blush of would-be greatness. In the end, it is how he has reacted to the hard times that will make it possible for Chad Henne to exceed even his own expectations.
Many thanks to Justin Schulman from Athletes First, LLC for his help in setting up this interview, and to Scott Eklund for his transcription assistance.
31 comments, Last at 13 Apr 2008, 5:15pm by PaulH