There are few college football players that performed more roles for their team over the last two seasons than Pitt all-purpose threat Quadree Henderson.
With the school’s best return man and one of the program’s top all-purpose threat of all time moving on the NFL, the Pitt coaching staff will have its work cut out for it to replace the speed demon in each of the four major roles he performed for the team.
Henderson’s biggest impact over the last three years came in the form of his kick return abilities. After bursting onto the scene by returning the opening kickoff of the Military Bowl to the house in 2015, Henderson scored on three more in 2016. In 2017, he was kept out of the end zone, but still averaged over 20 yards per return.
Since becoming Pitt’s primary kick returner, Henderson hasn’t given many on the depth chart behind him an opportunity. Beside Henderson, only Maurice Ffrench and Avonte Maddox returned kicks in 2017 and Maddox will be graduating.
Ffrench is as good of an option as Pitt has to return kicks, with track star speed coming out of high school and a bit of experience.
After Ffrench, there isn’t a clear second option for the Panthers, but there are a number of young, fast receivers like Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, Ruben Flowers and Michael Smith that could angle for a special teams role.
While Henderson’s results as a kick returner took a step back in 2017, he turned things on in the punt return game. His two touchdowns led the ACC and was one of three players in the conference that averaged more than 10 yards per return.
Ffrench is an option as punt returner, as is fellow receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes, who had one punt return for 20 yards in 2017.
But the most dynamic punt returner on the 2017 Pitt squad might have been redshirting safety Paris Ford. With Ford in the fold for 2018, expect him to get first crack at punt return duties.
If Henderson got onto people’s radars with his kickoff return in the Military Bowl, he became a household name thanks to his success running the jet sweep in Matt Canada’s offense in 2016. Pitt featured less of that look in 2017, because opposing defenses were sitting on it, leaving Pitt to give the ball to its running backs more often. That combination is what caused a lot of the running room for Darrin Hall late in the season.
It’s in that realm that the Panthers might have the hardest time replacing Henderson. He’s not the only player that’s been a part of that package over the last two years, but he’s had the most success by far.
Henderson had 98 career carries for 885 yards, good for a 9-yard-per-carry average. In 11 career carries, Araujo-Lopes has averaged 3.45 yards per carry. Ffrench has done well, averaging 9.2 yards per carry and scoring two rushing touchdowns, but he has just 21 attempts over two seasons. Expect Ffrench to get the first crack at this part of Henderson’s role.
This might be the one spot that Pitt has pretty well figured out. Araujo-Lopes seemed to have passed Henderson as a pure receiving option in 2017 and as a redshirt senior, looks poised to get a big chunk of targets in 2018.
Ffrench will have plenty of playing time in this spot, as well, and the most impact could end up coming from Tre Tipton, who missed all of 2017 with a knee injury, but has shown poise and quality route-running from the slot, especially as a third-down target.
It’s never easy to replace a player that performs so many different roles that require different skillsets and knowledge, but Pitt seems to be in a pretty good position at wide receiver to not just replace senior Jester Weah, but Henderson as well.
With Araujo-Lopes, Butler-Jenkins, Ffrench, Flowers, Aaron Mathews, Michael Smith, Darian Street and Tipton, the Panthers have a deep core of returning receivers with a variety of skillsets. Pitt won’t be replacing Henderson on a one-for-one basis, but Pitt has built up the depth to sustain this kind of a loss.
The Sports Now network is growing! Check out our new site PittsburghHockeyNow.com for the best Pittsburgh Penguins news and opinion.