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‘It’s the expectation’: Ramon Henderson shines in new role for Irish

| Monday, November 15, 2021

A flu bug ripping its way through the locker room. No All-American safety Kyle Hamilton. Two more defensive captains in graduate student defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and senior linebacker Drew White out with high fevers. Forced to prepare for two different quarterbacks against a third straight opponent with an extra week of rest than the Irish.

But when guys like sophomore Ramon Henderson step up on the defense, the adversity faced by the Irish seems trivial, all things considered. Notre Dame made it look easy on the field as they throttled Virginia 28-3, in no small part due to Henderson’s contributions, as the sophomore cornerback got his first career start with the Irish … except it was as a safety.

“I was told on Tuesday that I’d be moving to safety and possibly starting if I got it all down,” Henderson said. “It’s very different from cornerback, so it’s kind of a hard transition.”

Henderson says the transition was difficult, but it was hard to tell. If someone sat down to watch the Irish play for the first time in the 2021 season, it would have been hard to differentiate Henderson’s play from fellow starter, senior DJ Brown. Henderson recorded a couple of big-time tackles to help stall Virginia drives. His highlight-reel play came at the end of the first half, with the Cavaliers looking to chip away at a 21-0 deficit. At their own 40, UVA quarterback John Woolfolk launched a deep pass that Henderson tracked all the way, leaping past the Virginia receiver, and the Irish corner in coverage, to haul in an impressive interception.

Henderson was quick to credit the play to Brown’s guidance: “Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have got it if DJ [Brown] didn’t tell me to do something. He told me to show two-high coverage, and he bumped down.”

Henderson recalled of his interception, “[Jay Woolfolk] just showed eyes at [receiver Dontayvion Wicks] so I just ran over there and tried to catch the ball.”

Early in the game, Henderson was exceptionally active, with the scoreboard still reflecting a close game. Notre Dame’s first drive resulted in a turnover on downs, meaning the Irish led by just seven towards the end of the first quarter. Woolfolk found a Virginia receiver open over the middle of the field with what could have been a first-down pass. However, Henderson closed with remarkable speed and didn’t even let the receiver turn, sticking him to a six-yard gain. That kept UVA hunting to move the chains, and a pre-snap penalty ended up dooming the Cavaliers’ drive. That individual Henderson play won’t be highlighted as a game-changing moment, but it further sparked the Irish offensive momentum. Notre Dame scored on the ensuing possession and never looked back.

Of course, Virginia was not at full strength on offense either. But that nearly made things more difficult in preparation for the Irish. UVA signal-caller Brennan Armstrong is one of the best passers in the FBS and serves as both the leading passer and rusher for the Cavaliers. Virginia’s offense was not the same without his presence. However, preparing for Woolfolk brought its own set of challenges. The true freshman had virtually no film, and the Cavaliers also brought out a wildcat offense to start the game. Woolfolk was a dual-threat that required exceptional discipline from the Irish at every level of the defense.

“I think they’re a little bit more fluid with [Armstrong], but [Woolfolk] is good too,” Henderson commented on the defensive preparation. “When we heard the news, at the end of the day, we’ve still got to go play them. They’ve still got to come play us.”

The Irish took the fight to UVA right away, holding the Cavaliers to a net loss of four yards on their first two possessions, allowing the offense to build a two-touchdown cushion. Armstrong complimented the defensive line’s ability to wreak havoc on the Virginia line.

“They did a good job moving around and making [Woolfolk] a little nervous.”

Henderson also deflected some of the praise he received for stepping up in a new role — quick to not only talk down his efforts but praise some of the other members of the Irish defense that stepped up on Saturday.

“It’s just the expectation. I had to step up,” Henderson noted.

He went on to praise his roommate and fellow sophomore Xavier Watts. Watts was a wide receiver at the beginning of the year, converted to linebacker, and then finally has made his way to the safety position, which he played in high school. As Virginia began to exploit a suspect Irish run defense with Woolfolk’s running ability, Watts made a couple of big tackles that minimized potential big gains.

“That’s my guy,” Henderson said of Watts. “I’m so proud of him. He’s worked so hard and is doing whatever he can to get on the field.”

The Irish may continue to lean on Henderson. Hamilton, who left the USC game on Oct. 23 with a knee injury, has yet to return. Leaving the field on Saturday, he still didn’t look particularly comfortable in even a light jog. The Irish have two more games remaining as they hunt down an unlikely but possible College Football Playoff berth.

“It was not an easy week. With injuries, illnesses, another team that had the week off, being on the road at night, which was not easy,” head coach Brian Kelly said of the Irish’s performance. “The guys took this as a challenge to play our best football … to get a victory on the road this late and to have some individuals step up and play their best football was impressive.”

On a night where Notre Dame was forced to continually flex their depth on both sides of the ball, yet another unheralded contributor shone in the limelight. The defense has been oft-critiqued for the Irish, but with their goals still laid out ahead of them, Ramon Henderson added his name to the list of players that continue to elevate their game for the Irish. Look for #11 in the blue and gold to continue to log key snaps, as the Irish try and stay hot down the stretch with two games remaining on the schedule.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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