Nearly eight months after transferring to Maryland, Caleb Henderson finally feels comfortable.
The former four-star quarterback recruit came to College Park by way of North Carolina in August, and after sitting through the 2016 season, he’s ready to jump-start his college career this year. With spring practice in full swing, Henderson certainly has the attention of Maryland’s coaching staff.
“I love his competitiveness. He’s a fiery guy. He’s into it. He’s high-energy, and he’s really talented,” head coach DJ Durkin said at Maryland’s first open practice on March 30. “I mean, Caleb can really run the ball, as well as throw. He’s got a strong arm. He’s a big, thick body who runs really well. He’s a good athlete. All of those things, in terms of talent, he checks all the boxes.”
Henderson is the current leader in a quarterback competition that most likely won’t be over before August. He’s battling rising sophomores Tyrrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager at the moment, and true freshman Kasim Hill will join the fray in the summer. Henderson has an advantage in experience over all of them, though, and as a result the starting job seems like his to lose.
“The first thing that you look for [in a starting quarterback] is a guy that can minimize risk, a guy that’s not gonna lose a game,” offensive coordinator Walt Bell told Testudo Times Monday. “And then we’re gonna look for a stockbroker. If I give that guy $100,000, a year later, there’d better be $100,000 there. Once he proves to me that he won’t lose my money or he won’t waste our money, then I’ll go give him some tools to take advantage of his talents and let him make me money.”
Henderson’s situation isn’t unheard of in the football world. But I’m a little too close to it all to see it that way.
‘He could run the ball with vantage’
I attended Lake Braddock Secondary School from seventh grade all the way through high school. It’s a big place. We had 620 kids in my graduating class, only three of whom chose Maryland over the bevy of cheaper in-state options. The total student population is over 4,000, making us the second-largest public school in Virginia.
In a related story, we have a consistently good football team. The Bruins reached the 6A state title game my seventh-grade year, and they’ve finished 8-2 or better in each of the last five regular seasons. We’re far from a prospect factory, but there are consistently a couple guys every year getting major-conference interest.
A.J. Alexander, my lab partner for part of eighth grade, was a four-star prospect who ended up at Ohio State; last season, he was their backup tight end as a redshirt freshman. Quarterback Michael Nebrich committed to Connecticut to play for Randy Edsall before Edsall took the Maryland job; Nebrich eventually transferred to Fordham, where he won back-to-back Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2013 and 2014.
We’ve sent plenty of guys to the Harvards and Delawares and Towsons of the world, and Dejoun Lee, whom I’ve known for many years, is now a running back at Army. In the Class of 2017, we had a pair of three-star recruits: running back/linebacker Lamont Atkins, who won the Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year, and tight end Andrew Park. The latter is a Maryland signee, while the former flipped from Vanderbilt to UVA, where he has enrolled early.
Actually, our most prominent figures in the sport right now are kickers. UNC’s Nick Weiler kicked the game-winner against Florida State and chopped the whole building down to a powder. Tyler Durbin, who only played soccer at Braddock, was Ohio State’s kicker in 2016. It would be nice if you remembered him for making 16 of his first 17 field goals, but you probably remember him for missing four attempts in the Buckeyes’ final two games and receiving death threats because of it.
And then there’s Caleb Henderson. He transferred to Braddock between his sophomore and junior years, and was immediately the team’s starting quarterback. The Bruins went 8-2 in Henderson’s first year and 10-0 in his senior campaign. The 2013 season was setting up for a clash of against also-unbeaten Centreville in the regional finals, but the team collapsed against Westfield the round before. (For some reason, my story about that game for the high school newspaper is still on the internet.)
Hendo was a sensation. His senior-year numbers—2,159 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air, plus 964 yards and another 18 scores on the ground—were every bit as dominant as they look on this page. He played like a fullback who had been gifted with the best arm in the region.
“He was a great athlete,” Bell said. “You saw him when he ran the ball, not only did he run the ball effectively ... just taking care of himself and finding first downs, he could run the ball with vantage.”
That he even became a quarterback was somewhat of an accident. At the youth level, he played all over the place: offensive line, defensive end, linebacker, free safety, receiver, you name it. Henderson was also an impressive lacrosse player and could throw a baseball pretty hard, and it soon became clear he had potential at quarterback. He switched just before ninth grade; college offers came shortly thereafter.
Henderson began on the West Potomac freshman team, but was the varsity starter as a sophomore. Caleb and older brother Jon switched to Lake Braddock after father Eric was let go as West Potomac’s head coach. The elder Henderson served as the Bruins’ offensive coordinator, so football never really left the household.
“We were always watching film or doing something football-related, so I felt like we were on the same page as far as my expectations and what I thought he could do,” said Eric Henderson, now the head coach at Hayfield. “He could kind of anticipate what I wanted on certain plays.”
Henderson’s recruitment lasted nearly two years, but the UNC effort headed by Bell, then the Tar Heels’ recruiting coordinator, won out in April 2013. During his official visit, Henderson met with the coaches and rode around on a golf cart with then-starter Bryn Renner—a West Springfield product who was the last great Northern Virginia quarterback before Henderson. Ultimately, seeing the campus sealed the deal for the then-junior.
“It was a sunny day, it was warm, there were lots of girls in bikinis, and he got a side of UNC that he had never seen before,” Eric Henderson said. “I think they really kinda pushed him that day to commit.
“He came back from the golf cart visit and said, ‘I think this is where I wanna go.’ I said, ‘Nope, you’re not gonna commit right now. We’re gonna go home. We’re gonna think about it.’”
So they drove home that night. Henderson had other visits scheduled later in the week, but woke up the next morning and still wanted to commit to the Tar Heels. His dad made him call up every other coach that had made the commitment to host him, and Caleb picked up the phone and told them all. He then called UNC to commit.
The Hendersons then reconfigured Lake Braddock’s offense to more closely mirror UNC’s, and a season-long barrage of fireworks followed. Here’s the Bruins’ conference schedule in its entirety:
(The Woodson game was actually called off in the third quarter. A thunderstorm forced both teams to the locker room, and rather than wait it out, the Cavaliers got on the bus and went home.)
Henderson was selected to play in the US Army All-America game, for which he received his jersey at a pep rally in the fall. He wrapped up his classes before graduation in late June, and headed down to Chapel Hill to make a name for himself.
‘Knock on my confidence’
At UNC, Henderson got stuck.
The Tar Heels’ recent string of quarterbacks is one of the most impressive in the country. After Renner left following the 2013 season, Marquise Williams started for three years and led UNC to the 2015 ACC title game against Clemson. Mitch Trubisky took over in 2016 and dominated, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards to go with 30 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He’s currently a projected first-round NFL draft pick.
Henderson redshirted his first season in Chapel Hill, then saw third-string action the next season. In two games, he finished with 53 rushing yards on five attempts, but was just 0-for-1 through the air. The sudden shift from being a superstar to an afterthought was jarring.
“It was tough,” Henderson said. “It was definitely a knock on my confidence.”
Most of his time at UNC was spent on the sidelines, observing and soaking in his peers’ tendencies and approaches. The fiery Henderson always admired Williams’ calmness in all situations. “I definitely think about Marquise when I throw a bad ball or throw a pick,” he said. “Just let it roll off your shoulder, nothing you can do about it now.” Trubisky, meanwhile, took Henderson under his wing early on and helped him grow comfortable in the offense. Henderson calls Trubisky “one of my brothers,” and the two remain close to this day.
“I think that’s the thing about Caleb,” his dad said. “He tends to observe and learn and find the best in his friends and his circle and learn from those things.”
Whatever semblance of a quarterback competition the Tar Heels had for 2016 after Williams’ graduation was seized by Trubisky in spring practice. With Trubisky eligible through the 2017 season, Henderson realized his window was closing fast.
“I never knew Mitch would be one-and-gone, so I was thinking, ‘He beat me in the spring, he’s flat-out better than me, and I’m gonna have to wait until my senior year,’” Henderson said.
It didn’t help that his mom was battling health issues at home during fall camp, and Henderson could only cope with that situation so well from four hours away. After going back and forth for several days, he decided on Aug. 20 that it was time for a change, and that he wanted to be closer to home.
Shortly after the family made the decision, Eric Henderson called up Chris Beatty, who played for him at Chantilly and was in his first season as Maryland’s wide receivers coach, and Bell, now the Terps’ offensive coordinator. Caleb drove up Friday night and was at Maryland Stadium Saturday morning for one of the team’s final preseason scrimmages. After UNC gave him his release and Durkin offered him a full scholarship, things fell into place quickly; Henderson joined the team Aug. 24. At the time, Maryland had five scholarship quarterbacks, but no sophomores or juniors, so he fit right in.
“It was good to add some older depth and a guy that could compete with those younger guys,” Bell said. “We got the best of both worlds. We got an older guy, as we were losing three older kids at the same time, to compete with our younger guys. Obviously there was a familiarity there, in terms of the recruiting process, so we took a chance on them and they took a chance on us.”
‘Knock all the rust off’
Becoming a big-time college quarterback isn’t easy at any step of the process. Even the most prolific recruits spend their offseasons attending camps and events hosted by schools and third parties alike. “I think we did five Big Ten schools in six days and just lived out of our car,” Eric Henderson said. “But that’s something you have to do if you want your kid to be considered.” Caleb was a varsity-level lacrosse player, but he had to spend his springs on the gridiron instead.
And then, even after settling on a school, there are no guarantees. Trubisky and Henderson were in back-to-back recruiting classes and were almost equal as prospects—Henderson’s 247Sports Composite rating was marginally better—but Trubisky made a bigger leap in three years than Henderson did in two. Henderson still isn’t guaranteed anything at Maryland, but he at least has a chance.
“All the clichés you hear about a coach’s son, he’s all of those things,” Bell said. “He’s a guy that works his ass off to improve every day, wants to be a really good player, I can see him wanting to be a coach someday as well. Now it’s just ... knock all the rust off and give him a chance to be comfortable with the offense, where he can go compete for our job.”
Henderson’s transition to Maryland was easy as far as those things go, but he still started off knowing just a handful of his new teammates and coaches. Being close to home helps: he visits family most weekends now, and did so during the week in-season. His puppy—Chief, a border collie—lives with his parents now, but Henderson still gets to see him.
“Football-wise, it didn’t take me long, maybe a month or so, until I really got adjusted to the terminology and different tempos and stuff like that,” Henderson said. “Socially, the guys are all really inviting. I knew some of the guys from high school. Avery [Edwards, a tight end], I knew from the recruiting process. So it was kind of an easier transition.”
While several of the best players from Henderson’s recruiting class are preparing for the NFL Draft, Henderson’s career is just getting going. He’ll enter his fourth year of college with one career pass and zero completions to his name. But now he has two seasons to flip that script, and he’s off to a good start.
“It’s been awesome here because I actually feel like I can play with confidence,” he said. “It’s a weird thing; I haven’t played with confidence in a long time.”
From Lake Braddock to UNC to Maryland, I’ve followed Henderson’s career as closely as anyone. There was a time when I thought I would cover him in Chapel Hill, but admissions offices and quarterback competitions alike derailed those notions. Instead, we both found just the right opportunity some 45 minutes from home at Maryland. I’m excited to see where the story goes from here.