- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES -- USC’s veterans seem more anxious than normal as spring ball, which kicks off Tuesday, approaches. The long layoff, made even longer with the lack of bowl practices, has them chomping at the bit to tighten up the chin straps.
But that anticipation might not even compare to some of the younger players looking forward to their first spring ball as Trojans. The USC coaches made an effort to redshirt as many newcomers as possible last year, hoping to preserve their eligibility for as long as possible to weather the years of scholarship reductions.
For those true freshmen who redshirted, such as cornerback Ryan Henderson, the transition to spring ball means the start of a new year and a real fight for playing time.
“I’m definitely looking forward to getting into spring ball, especially now that the whole redshirt year is over,” Henderson said. “I’m starting to feel like I’m more a part of the team. We bonded pretty well and a lot of guys -- Nickell Robey, Anthony Brown -- are looking out there to help me get better.”
Henderson, checking in at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, has stayed late after several winter throwing sessions to work one-on-one against receivers, and did so again Thursday. This time he drew De’Von Flournoy as an opponent. It didn’t matter who Henderson went up against last year, it wasn’t going to be easy. He took turns against the likes of Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and the rest of the USC receivers without much time to prepare himself.
“As a redshirt, I practiced against those guys a lot because I was on the scout team,” Henderson said. “That helped me a lot by learning the way they move, because they move a lot better than other guys out there. It made me better as a football player.”
Henderson said he needed to take that redshirt year in order to grow as a football player and gain a better understanding of the game and his position. While he may not have made an impact on the field for the Trojans, he made one off of it, making the honor roll during his first semester.
The cornerback spot will be interesting to watch this spring, as well as into the fall. Starters Robey and Isiah Wiley return, as do Torin Harris, Brown and Brian Baucham. Florida transfer Joshua Shaw is also hoping to begin his career at cornerback, as well as looking to gain immediate eligibility. Henderson said the competition makes the entire position better, and the family atmosphere in the meeting room and on the field keeps everything positive within the group. Even with the talent ahead of him, Henderson said he is ready to push himself into the mix.
While there is a long road between taking off a redshirt and beating out returning upperclassmen, Henderson is sure to make his share of plays this spring. He flashed several times this past fall, using his tremendous athleticism to knock away passes from much larger receivers and get around the edge on field goal attempts.
During the summer between his junior and senior year of high school, Henderson took home the inaugural SPARQ Rating National Championship, beating out 23 of the nation’s top athletes. Henderson’s 44.6-inch vertical jump and 4.34-second 40-yard dash would have turned heads at the NFL combine, let alone a high school competition. But he understands that translating that athleticism into production on the field this spring will be the biggest test.
“I feel a lot more comfortable now than I did last semester,” Henderson said. “Now, doing the 7-ons that we do as a team, I know the schemes and I’m starting to read receivers’ routes and alignments. I’m getting comfortable out there.”