PITTSFORD – Alone, on a football field, under the baking Midwest summer sun, Seantrel Henderson heard a voice in his head that told him exactly what needed to be done.
Got to run these gassers. Got to push yourself. That July 30 conditioning test will be here before you know it. Can’t fail. Fail, and you give the Buffalo Bills coaches one more reason to doubt that you have what it takes to be a starting offensive tackle in the NFL. Fail, and you might very well be out of a job, period.
You know they’re still furious about the mindless travel planning that resulted in a missed flight and a missed first practice of minicamp and a demotion from first to third string. You know they’re still unhappy that you were carrying too much weight and moving sluggishly during those offseason drills.
So, between late June and through most of July, Henderson would go to one of two football fields in his native Minnesota – at his high school, St. Paul’s Cretin-Derham Hall, or at the University of Minnesota – and run back and forth across the width of the surface. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with some work on his blocking technique and weight-lifting included in this solitary regimen.
The goal was to complete each segment of a half-gasser (the width of the field) in about 20 seconds, the standard for linemen. He would do 10 of them, just as he would be required to do in the test before being cleared to participate in camp drills at St. John Fisher College.
“I ran as much as I could until I was just burnt out,” Henderson said. “If I didn’t make it one day, I would just try to make it the next day.”
He ditched the junk food and ate healthy, courtesy of his great aunt’s cooking. His diet mainly consisted of roast turkey and/or chicken, sandwiches and salad. Lots of salad.
As a result, Henderson dropped 10 pounds from his 6-foot-7 frame, going from 358 to his current 348. He passed the conditioning test. He won back his starting job at right tackle. For now, at least.
“I was just pretty much trying to stay on the right path and do everything right when nobody was watching,” Henderson said. “Once I got here, I was ready to go.”
Now, the challenge is about staying put. Henderson started all 16 games at right tackle after joining the Bills last year as a seventh-round draft pick from the University of Miami. But once he finally arrived at minicamp, he was reminded by the coaches that they have another option, Cyrus Kouandjio, whom the Bills made a second-round choice from Alabama in 2014. Kouandjio, who performed so poorly in training camp and the preseason that he never saw the field as a lineman last season, leapfrogged over Henderson into the No. 1 right tackle spot.
For Henderson, the message was received, loud and clear. That is primarily why, for the second time in as many preseason games, he’ll be the starter Thursday night when the Bills face the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
From now on, Henderson will remember to build in more travel time on his way back to work in Buffalo. By cutting it too close in June, he wound up being stuck in Chicago due to a lightning storm and didn’t hit the field until the second day of minicamp. That was unacceptable to Rex Ryan, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and his position coaches.
“I was supposed to be on time,” Henderson said. “I wasn’t, so that was my fault. But I just kept grinding and kept grinding until I got here, and I’ve been doing the same every day. I’m just doing everything I’m supposed to do and doing the right things. … Just get on the schedule, stay on the schedule, always be on time for everything and everything should go well.”
“You can tell he’s really working hard to be a good player this year,” Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer said.
That wasn’t nearly as evident during the offseason. Henderson’s body looked sloppy. He seemed to be moving as if he were standing ankle-deep in thick mud.
No wonder Kromer could often be heard barking expletives in Henderson’s direction during minicamp drills.
“Once you’re out of shape and you’re too heavy for your body, everybody that gets in that situation doesn’t have much success,” Kromer said. “Because you can’t move as well as you’re expecting. You’re expecting to be able to do things you can’t do, so, yeah, he was a little behind. And, gosh darn, did he work hard and come in in shape and ready to go.
“Seantrel is self-motivated. He can work. He knows what he needs to do. And when it came time he needed to get it done, he did. You get what you earn. When you’re doing a good job, you earn more reps. When you’re not getting the job done, you earn less reps.”
Despite the rough patches of the offseason, Henderson is happy with the coaching he receives from Kromer and assistant offensive line coach Kurt Anderson. He firmly believes he’s becoming a better player because of what he has learned in the way of techniques.
“Kromer taught us a lot of techniques that I really didn’t learn last year that have actually been helping me with my game,” Henderson said. “Just small stuff, just ways to step, ways to get your hands on the guy, even just the thought process before the ball is snapped. Kromer explains things until he knows that you understand it. He’s very repetitive.”
His rookie season was a growth experience, an often hard-knocks education of life in the NFL. He made plenty of mistakes.
He paid a hefty price by letting pass-rushers get too clean a path to the quarterback or by missing assignments in run-blocking.
But Henderson survived well enough to hang onto the starting job, even if, in many ways, it was by default because there wasn’t anyone better on the roster.
“I feel like I’m still working to where I want to be as a technician, as an offensive lineman,” he said. “But I will say, since I already went through a whole season last year, I know what to expect and I would say I am smarter when it comes to the game right now.”
Besides his one year of NFL experience, there are those daily practice encounters with perhaps the best defensive line in the NFL.
Preparation doesn’t get a whole lot better than trying to do the impossible: keep three Pro Bowlers (Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams) and Jerry Hughes away from the quarterback.
Most of the time, Henderson gets to face Mario Williams.
“He’s a freak, man,” Henderson said. “He’s fast, strong. You don’t want to get pushed back into the quarterback by Mario. I just think, ‘Get my hands on him first.’”
Although, by most indications, the starting right tackle spot is Henderson’s to lose, nothing has been officially decided. Henderson is well aware of that.
All of that hard work and sacrifice in Minnesota won’t mean a thing if he allows himself to return to the guy who wasn’t working as hard as he needed to be during the offseason.
Overweight, out-of-shape players quickly become ex-players. They become ex-starters even faster. Henderson views Kouandjio as a formidable challenger, but not an enemy.
“Me and Cyrus are cool,” he said. “We’re actually good friends. We hang out, we help each other with what we can do better as far as our craft and things like that. It’s not, ‘I’m not going to talk to you because we’re competing for the same job.’ When it comes to competing, we compete. Afterwards, we’re cool.
“I’m going to just keep competing every day until the coach says,” to one of them, ‘This is your spot,’ or, ‘This is your spot,’” Henderson said. “I think we’re still just going hard and competing with each other every day. Both of us are just on our assignments, getting the playbook down pat and just knowing what we’re doing out there.
“It’s going to be a battle until it’s time for the first regular-season game.”