Battle of DBUs: The Case for CJ Henderson as the best in America
LSU and Florida like to claim “DBU,” arguing that they are the premier school for defensive backs in college football.
The debate over who is the real DBU depends on how you define “DBU:” Is it the school that produces the best NFL secondary talent? Is it the school that produces the best college secondary year in and out? Is it some combination? Without any fixed definition of the criteria, it’s tough to declare a winner, but what is certainly true is that under almost any criteria, Florida and LSU have legitimate claims to the throne.
The Gators and Tigers have produced numerous All-American defensive backs, Jim Thorpe Award winners (best college defensive back), a host of NFL 1st-round draft picks and several NFL All-Pros at the defensive back positions.
When LSU and Florida get together, one thing you can be confident in is that some of the best defensive back talent in America will be on the football field. Saturday night’s contest at Tiger Stadium will be no different.
In fact, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the 2 best defensive backs in the country will be in Baton Rouge Saturday night, albeit on opposing sidelines.
LSU’s Grant Delpit is an exceptional talent and in my view, the most versatile defensive back in the country. The All-American safety is lethally fast and physical in run support and as good a tackler as there is in college football in open space:
— #BusinessAintBoomin (@ftbeard_17) September 7, 2019
Thanks to his unique combination of speed and size, he’s also a tight-end eraser — the rare college safety who negates mismatches because he’s fast enough and physical enough to stick with the freakish tight ends (see, Kyle Pitts of Florida) and the other team’s NFL prototype wide receiver (see, Van Jefferson).
It’s fun to watch him play and he’ll undoubtedly be a key figure Saturday night, staking his own claim to the title of “Best DB in America.”
On the other sideline, however, Florida has CJ Henderson, perhaps America’s finest corner.
Here are some video game numbers on Henderson from a season ago, per Pro Football Focus: SEC-best 43% completion rate on throws against, 0 TDs allowed, SEC-best 19.1 snaps per reception against, SEC 3rd-best 49.1 passing rating against.
With blazing 4.4 speed, Henderson can outrun most team’s fastest wideout, and he has the recovery speed to make up for mistakes — whether he commits one or his teammates.
Here, he begins the play away from the coverage but prevents a touchdown with his closing speed — on South Carolina (now 49ers) speedster Deebo Samuel nonethless.
CJ Henderson’s stock is skyrocketing. This just shows the kind of speed he has. You don’t even get to see his ability to track and find the ball here. 📈📈📈pic.twitter.com/lsWRSMM139
— Mello (@mello) May 1, 2019
Henderson is also tall (6-1), has elite athleticism (40.5 vertical) and is very physical despite a 190-pound frame, with a 545-pound squat and elite hand strength that allows him to break up passes even when engaged in close fights for position with bigger receivers:
— Brian Johannes (@Draft_Brian) June 24, 2019
For these reasons, Henderson joins Delpit in the 1st round of most 2020 mock drafts.
The one knock on Henderson of late seems to be that he’s not a good tackler. At Walter Football, Henderson is rated as the nation’s 4th best corner, behind Alabama’s converted wide receiver Trevon Diggs, among others. The explanation:
“Henderson’s tackling against Miami was terrible, raising huge concerns among NFL scouts.”
For fun, I checked out what a couple of NFL scouts from 2019 playoff teams thought of this assessment. Here was one email response:
“I think that’s a limited view based on one game. When you watch more of him on film, you see a physical corner that has a high number of career tackles for loss, a few sacks as a boundary blitzer. He plays with great physicality — sometimes to a fault. He needs to be smarter in run support and understand when it is time to lower the boom and when it is time to form tackle.”
Here was another:
“He’s the top corner in the draft to us. He’s fast, has tremendous balance and eye control. He plays so well technically in different coverages, whether cutting or jamming inside routes or playing bump or press coverages. Collegiately, he makes life easier on his safeties because you can’t take chances with him. His hand strength is a difference maker in the 50-50 ball world of the NFL. We think he has room to grow with technique as a tackler, but it isn’t a problem for him. That’s a stretch.”
However Henderson’s game translates at the next level, the raw numbers and the eye-test say he’s a sensational player in the SEC.
Saturday night, he’ll get a NFL scouts dream matchup against LSU’s Justin Jefferson, a receiver with prototypical NFL size and good speed. Henderson will be easily the best corner Jefferson has faced this season, and it will be interesting to see how much risk Joe Burrow will take throwing at Henderson if this matchup happens early and often.
The Gators’ secondary leads the nation with 12 interceptions, and Henderson’s ability to handle 1-on-1 matchups with talented receivers — thus allowing his safeties to shade and help elsewhere — is a big reason. Wherever Henderson lines up for the Gators, (a handful of 1-on-1s against the electric JaMarr Chase would also make sense), he’s bound to make an impact.
As for the “who’s best debate” — it’s probably not the most fair comparison since one star is a safety and the other star is a corner.
But they already are linked and known for their excellence.
Consensus preseason All-Americans, Delpit and Henderson met and had the chance to spend time together as 2 of the select 30 college players invited to the NFL’s Elite Football Symposium this past spring. If they continue to play the way they are capable, they might spend more time together soon — in the NFL’s Green Room next April.
For now, they’ll have to settle for the chance to make a statement with their play in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
You can bet the whole college football world — and plenty of NFL eyes — will be watching.