Seantrel Henderson playing underdog role

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- His every move was once scrutinized, his words parsed for clues, his college destination a guessing game.

Analysts agreed on only one thing: Minnesota high school standout Seantrel Henderson would be the most dominating offensive tackle in college football, no matter where he ultimately went to college.

Look at one high school tape, and you understand why. Henderson towered over players, easily knocking defenders out of the way. He was deceptively athletic for his size, too. Most 6-foot-8, 330-pound football prospects are not basketball players AND 1,500-meter track champions. Every major program in the country wanted him.

Ultimately, Miami got him.

Some three years later, Henderson walks out of the brand-new team facility to the main entrance outside, grabbing some lunch during media day. He cut his trademark dreadlocks off a week earlier, making him unrecognizable to some. Quarterback Stephen Morris had no idea who Henderson was the first time he saw his big tackle sans all the hair.

But the new look serves almost as a metaphor for Henderson himself. Nobody nationally recognizes him anymore, either. The fanfare is gone, and so is the hype. Henderson has gone from the most known college football prospect in the entire nation in 2010 to a player largely forgotten outside Miami. He is on zero preseason watch lists. He did not make the preseason All-ACC team. He is not even among Mel Kiper's top 10 offensive line prospects.

The most scrutinized high school recruit in the nation has turned into a virtual unknown.

“That’s fine with me, not being the player that they’re talking about,” Henderson said with a sly smile. “I feel like I’m an underdog when it comes to all the top tackles. I feel like they’re going to see different once the season starts.”

Top dog to underdog, but with the opportunity to be top dog once again. His coaches believe Henderson is prepared to have the type of season everybody expected when he arrived as a ballyhooed true freshman. Henderson himself says he feels a much bigger sense of urgency, knowing he only has one season left to prove himself, to remind the world why every scout and recruiter tripped over themselves to get a closer look.

So far, though, Henderson has made headlines mostly for off-the-field drama. His recruitment was more convoluted than a soap opera at times. He made everybody wait on his college decision, first signing with USC after national signing day had passed. He asked out in the summer after USC was hit with wide-ranging NCAA sanctions. Henderson eventually chose Miami, in part, because of his relationship with then-coach Randy Shannon.

In his first year, Henderson made nine starts and earned a spot on the FWAA Freshman All-America team. But Shannon was fired when the 2010 season ended, and speculation swirled that Henderson was unhappy with new coach Al Golden. Henderson denied the rumors, but he did not get off on the right foot with Golden, either. Henderson served one suspension to start his sophomore season, then another to start spring practice in 2012.

A few months later, Henderson went through perhaps the most trying time in his life. In late July 2012, just before the start of fall practice, his best friend was shot to death back home in Minnesota. Henderson lost his favorite aunt to cancer six days later. In between, he got into a car accident and sustained a concussion.

After attending both funerals, Henderson returned to Coral Gables emotionally spent. He sat out fall practice because of the concussion. Henderson started seeing a psychiatrist, but being around his teammates was a much bigger help. It took time for Henderson to completely regroup and get healthy. In the meantime, a freshman started at his tackle spot.

“It was devastating for me,” Henderson said. “I felt like everything was happening too fast. I was taking a loss week after week after week. I feel like things couldn’t get any worse after that. I just had to keep the faith, look at everybody who could help me with things like that and I just got back in a groove and started getting back to a routine.”

Henderson ended up starting the final seven games of the season. Golden saw a different Henderson this past offseason. After deciding to return to school for his senior year, Henderson committed himself to getting in better shape and working harder than he had previously. He won wide praise from coaches for his play and his focus this past spring.

“The light has been glimmering off and on, glimmering, glimmering and it seems to be more of a consistent beam now,” offensive line coach Art Kehoe says. “To me, the proof’s in the pudding -- when we play the games, know what I mean? We’ll see how that goes. I think he’s just come a long way.”

Henderson is in much better condition, he knows the offense better and he is completely committed now. Last year, he gave up three sacks. This year, he wants to give up zero and “let nobody touch Steve.”

“It’s all about performance,” Kehoe says. “Talent is talent. It’s about performance and I’d say up to this point he’s probably been a bit of an underachiever. But he’s doing the right things and hopefully he achieves the way he can.”

His teammates believe in him. “He’s got a lot going for him,” Morris says. “And now he’s playing more of a chip on his shoulder.”

The distractions are gone. Henderson remains incredibly talented, physically gifted with big hands and long arms in the mold of former Miami tackle Bryant McKinnie, the seventh overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft. Henderson believes he has first-round NFL talent, too.

But he also knows he has to prove it -– to his coaches, his teammates, to scouts and all those who may have forgotten what he can do. The spotlight may have faded, and the hype might be over. His opportunity, however, is not lost.

Henderson has an entire season to complete the circle and become top dog again.