Quadree Henderson is a blur.
That’s the best way to describe Pittsburgh’s 5-foot-8, 190-pound sophomore out of Delaware who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash out of high school and is somewhere in the 4.3-something range right now.
He’s listed as a wide receiver, but where Henderson really does his damage is on fly sweeps and in the kick return game. He caught 23 balls this year but ran it 54 times for 555 yards — over 10 yards per attempt — and five touchdowns. He added in four return touchdowns — three on kickoff returns and one on a punt return — to boot, and he earned several All-American honors for his efforts in that area.
Playing on one of the nation’s most dynamic attacks, he is perhaps the most dynamic player and certainly its most dangerous to take any given play to the house.
So what makes Henderson so, so good? We look at the film.
The fly sweep
The first thing you notice about Pittsburgh is the incredible number of pre-snap shifts. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada sends guys all over the place. Linemen switch sides and tight ends and fullbacks motion in and out, up to the line, out wide and into the backfield. It’s almost headache-inducing to watch, much less play against: The Panthers have the 11th-highest scoring offense in all of college football at 42.3 points per game.
But no player in the nation works harder pre-snap than Henderson. The results are often quite successful.
“Their offense is built around the shift tree and then the fly sweep where you have to honor the fly sweep because he’s been very dangerous,” Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. “He’s had big, explosive runs out of that.”
Pittsburgh loves to essentially hide its tiny speedster behind the line before giving him the ball. The long run against Oklahoma State, in which the camera can’t even keep up with Henderson, shows exactly how dangerous and deceiving Henderson’s pre-snap motion can be.
This is how Oklahoma State aligns when Henderson comes in motion:
Then he starts back in the other direction:
When the Cowboys’ defenders come crashing down on the running back, not only are they already way out of position, but they leave one defender to take on one untouched offensive linemen.
It’s hard enough to stop Henderson when you’re in position. When you’re out of position, forget about it.
Faking the sweep
Henderson doesn’t have to get the ball to have a huge impact on the game out of the backfield. In fact, he never had more than nine carries in any game this season. But just having to account for him makes this Pitt running attack so, so good. Defenders have to be accountable for both Henderson on the sweep and running back James Conner, who went for over 1,000 yards this year and is leaving early for the NFL Draft, on the run up the middle.
“When you’re forced to honor (the fly sweep), then they have Conner on the cutback,” Hankwitz said. “It’s all built together where you gotta honor the one thing but if somebody gets out of position because they’re too worried about the fly and they don’t honor the cutback, then you’ve got Conner ripping up the field.”
In the example below, Pitt uses its elaborate pre-snap routine to open up a gaping hole in the defensive alignment before the ball is even snapped. Conner rumbles for an easy first down after the safety initially assigned to Henderson completely vacates the area as Henderson comes back around on the sweeping motion.
Stopping the sweep
It’s a multi-step process for stopping this explosive Pitt attack. But shutting down the sweep, which the Panthers will run at least a handful of times per game, really helps to in turn slow down Conner. If the Panthers can find success in both the sweep and the fake sweep that results in a handoff to Conner, the Wildcats are in big trouble.
Clemson did a good job stopping Henderson back in November. The Tigers limited him to just two carries for negative four yards.
First, it’s key to recognize the formation and pre-snap shifts so that every single defender knows his obligation. Who’s responsible for the sweep? Who’s responsible for staying home (if it’s a fake sweep) and tackling Conner? Then, you have to attack downhill, provided you have the numbers to do so. In the big plays Henderson ripped off, he rarely had to make a guy miss. The pre-snap movement and threat of Conner got the defense going the wrong way, his tackle kicks out an takes care of one would-be-tackler, and one of the fastest men on the planet isn’t going to be touched any time soon.
“Guys have to do their jobs on the plays,” Hankwitz said. “If you’re supposed to honor the sweep, you’ve got to honor the sweep. If you’ve got to honor the cutback, you’ve got to honor the cutback.”
So Northwestern has to have at least one (and sometimes two) guys focused on a possible sweep simply to take up blockers and then a third to actually make a tackle. They also have to recognize the play early enough to attack the blockers early. If Pitt’s linemen or tight ends are blocking several yards down the field, Northwestern is in trouble already. Watch Clemson execute this perfectly and throw Henderson for a five-yard loss.
The Tigers didn’t overreact to the initial motion, and they get downhill quickly, beating would-be blockers to their spots.
“It’s one of the hardest offenses we’ve prepared for,” Hankwitz, who compared it to preparing for an option attack, said. “We’ve got to do a great job of tackling and being disciplined.”
It’s worth noting that despite Clemson’s shutdown of Henderson, the Panthers still put up 44 points in Death Valley. It’s a very, very good offense. Containing Henderson is just one aspect. But it’s a very important aspect at that. If the Wildcats fail in this area, an extremely versatile and explosive Panther offense has one more option to go to and keep Northwestern defenders on their heels.