Before Kyle Hamilton went down with an injury last season, Ramon Henderson had never played or practiced at safety.
“I never had really played safety before, prior to Kyle going down,” admitted Henderson. “I guess I had maybe a glimpse of it when I used to play Dime for field safety, but besides actually really knowing the spectacle of the position and like certain plays or dialects? No, never happened until that Virginia game.”
He went from never having played the position to a starring role in that game where he earned a tackle for loss on a blitz and had a highlight reel interception on a diving grab. It was a heck of a first impression for him, but it wasn’t going to be as easy as it looked that night.
There was a lot he had to learn and his progress wasn’t always going to be linear. The adjustment from playing corner didn’t click overnight because there is more responsibility with his new position.
“You’re so much more involved with the play now (at safety),” said Henderson. “ You could be in a regular cover 3 or cover 2 call…or let’s say a cover 1 call. As a corner, you are just locked on one. As a safety you’re saying this right here, you’re saying alert this, when they do this you fit here.
“You have to know different gaps, know where other people are going. So I’d say that’s the biggest difference. You have to know so much more. You have to know so much more of the field and where everyone else is going to be, whereas in a corner you are just locked on your man.”
Those reps he gained at the end of the last season were invaluable to his development. It gave him a head start for 2022 and it’s been during fall camp where things have really taken off for him. The extra time they get to focus solely on football rather than having to prepare for games and go to class has been very beneficial.
“From that Virginia game to playing Oklahoma State there was definitely a big jump in comfortability. I’d say there is a bigger jump now (during camp). I mean, we do this stuff every day for hours and hours so just reppin’ the same stuff, getting used to this, what you say when they’re like this (the offensive formation), or like this, so yeah.”
Safeties coach Chris O’Leary knows the kind of talent Henderson possesses and O’Leary has seen the kind of progress that has been made to put Henderson into a spot where he is competing for a starting job this August.
There was a wall that Henderson had to overcome when he was competing in the spring and he’s now leaped over that because his knowledge of the position has increased.
“He's grown a lot,” acknowledged O’Leary. “He still does some stuff that frustrates me, but he's a special talent, athletically and just his natural instincts. He has taken a step to the point where he's handling everything we throw at him and he's understanding it. There's a difference between a guy that goes out there and just memorizes what he's doing and a guy that understands what we're doing.
“He understands it.”
Henderson needed to close that knowledge gap because he was playing catch up behind Brandon Joseph, DJ Brown, and Houston Griffith. All of them have years of experience playing the position and despite Henderson having the athleticism and instincts for the position, he needed to be the complete package to pull even or ahead in the competition to start at safety.
He has the necessary confidence to be a starter, but he also knows that supporting each other in addition to pushing each will make the group as a whole better.
“Obviously I believe we all think we’re better than each other,” said Henderson. “I think that’s fine. They think they’re better than me, I think I’m better than them.
“But it’s healthy, we all clap for each other. We all pat each other on the back. At the same time we’re trying to be the best player each and every day. I give them pointers, they give me pointers…they help me. I think we’re a really close, tight-knit position group, and we’ve all got each others backs.”
Everyone can expect Henderson to play a significant role for this Notre Dame defense. The competition to start at safety isn’t over yet, but those splash plays he made at Virginia were scratching the surface of the player he can be at his new position.