Through three seasons at Southeastern Louisiana, Jack Henderson progressed from a reserve at the FCS program to an all-conference defensive back. Despite that steady success, something was missing.
"Personally, I had hit a ceiling,'' Henderson said. "And I just wanted more as a player, as a person, and that's when I really started thinking, 'Hey man, I think you can play at the next level.' ''
That next level turned out to be Minnesota and the Big Ten. So, the Mandeville, La., native packed his bags in January and traveled 1,200 miles north to join the Gophers.
"When the plane landed, there was already snow on the ground, there's ice on the ground,'' he said. "Prior to that, I hadn't seen snow in seven years. … But in the wintertime, if you layer up, you'll be fine.''
Henderson quickly is getting the hang of Minnesota, just as he's adjusting to his role as a nickelback for the Gophers, who return to Big Ten play on Saturday night at Northwestern. The 6-3, 215-pounder is coming off a standout game at North Carolina last week in which he led the Gophers with 11 tackles (eight solo) and intercepted a pass by Drake Maye, the Tar Heels' star quarterback.
"The reason why we brought him in was we just love how he played football. He loved football,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "You got to keep bringing people in that love football.''
Mining talent at the FCS level
In this age of the transfer portal, Fleck, his assistant coaches and his recruiting staff are on a productive run of identifying FCS players who fit the Minnesota system and develop into diamonds in the rough.
It started in 2021 with Abilene Christian linebacker Jack Gibbens, who led the Gophers in tackles that season and now starts in the NFL for the Tennessee Titans. Defensive tackle Kyler Baugh of Houston Baptist joined last year and has 2½ sacks in three games this season.
Henderson, who earned first-team All-Southland Conference honors in 2022, and cornerback Tre'Von Jones, an Elon transfer, give the Gophers three former FCS players making an impact this season.
Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi sees some common traits among the FCS transfers.
"The thing that kind of stands out is they were really good at their level,'' Rossi said. "But then, they're smart kids who worked really hard and just want to come in and compete. A lot of times when those guys come in, there's a gratitude to them.''
Fleck described the process of landing transfers as being more complicated than it might appear.
"It's really hard when you're talking about transfers because you don't get to know them as long as you get to know high school players and their families,'' he said. "You've got to go by tape. You've got to go by past coaches. You've got to go by word of mouth. You've got to go by people that might know that person, that coach, that guy. It's kind of like 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.' ''
Honing his game
Henderson, who has two years of eligibility remaining, needed spring practice and training camp to learn the nuances of the defense but now is making an impact in several ways. His strong game against North Carolina also included a pass breakup and a tackle for loss.
"He has gotten better in his coverage. He's gotten better in his striking. He's gotten way better just understanding his role in the system,'' Fleck said. "It's a little more complex from where he came from, and he struggled with that a little bit in the spring.''
Said Henderson: "There might have been a rough bump for maybe the first week or two, but after that, I was rolling — wheels on the ground.''
While adjusting to Minnesota, Henderson also allows himself to think back to his Louisiana roots. A big fan of Cajun food, Henderson has found a go-to place in the Twin Cities for jambalaya.
"Smack Shack is probably the only place I'd say that's nearby that has kind of that Cajun spark,'' he said.
On the field, Henderson sees a slight difference in size and speed in Big Ten players when compared with those at the FCS level. He doesn't feel out of his element in his new football home, though.
"It was a leap of faith, in a sense, but I did have that confidence behind my game and behind my person that I could do it,'' he said.