Catching up with K.J. Henry

Published 12:52 am Tuesday, August 9, 2022

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By Jay Spivey
For the Clemmons Courier

West Forsyth football fans probably all remember the date — Dec. 20, 2017.

That’s the day that star defensive end K.J. Henry, who was rated by ESPN as the sixth-best high school football player in that class, signed to play at powerhouse Clemson for Coach Dabo Swinney.

Much has changed for Henry, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound graduate student, over the past five years. But he’s still confident in his abilities, yet he has remained humble.

“It’s been surreal. That’s probably the word I’d put on it,” he said. “I think I’m someone who really is a realistic person, and I try to set goals for myself, try to climb the ladder each year and be a better version of myself. But with that being said, just my experience, the time I’ve had at Clemson, it’s something I really couldn’t have fathomed. I could’ve never imagined it for myself.

“It’s been just so much better than I ever thought it could be. It’s really just been a blessing, man. That’s really what it’s been. It’s been great. It’s been a learning lesson — just shaped me into who I am today.”

Henry, in his senior season at West Forsyth in the fall of 2017, went from a top-level high school team that went 11-1 overall and 5-0 in the Central Piedmont 4-A, graduated early from West Forsyth, to signing with Clemson just before Christmas, and just after New Year’s Day in 2018, he spent what would’ve been his second semester as a senior in high school as a freshman, early enrollee with Clemson, which went 12-2 overall, including 7-1 in the ACC, and lost in the College Football Playoff semifinals to Alabama.

Even though many players in Henry’s situation might’ve been bright-eyed at the enormity of moving on to a college football powerhouse, many of those concerns went out the window because Henry’s father, Keith, is a former assistant college football coach. While a coach in college, Keith, who played and graduated from Catawba, coached at Ohio, Wake Forest, Catawba, N.C A&T, Charleston Southern, Charlotte and Western Carolina.

“When it comes to the specifics of it all it wasn’t as overwhelming as it is for a lot of people just because of the football background I had with my dad,” K.J. said. “It was a lot of things of already knowing what to expect more than anything.”

K.J., who received a degree in sports communication in 2020 in just three years, as well as a master’s in athletic leadership last December, did all of his schoolwork during the spring semester of 2018. He also went to the weight room, training room, did film study, learned the plays, and everything else that it takes to be a top-notch college football player.

“It was a learning curve for myself,” he said. “You get that high of being an All-American — being one of the best players in the state, one of the best players in the country — and then you come on the campus and you’re low man on the totem pole, and you have to do it all over again, which I love about the process of it all.”

Going from being the big man on campus at West Forsyth to being among some of the best college, and future NFL players, in the country, was a strange juxtaposition for K.J.

“That was probably a very humbling experience,” he said. “But I knew more than anybody that I wasn’t where I wanted to be at that time in my career. And so, I came into my freshman year just motivated to put a great foundation of work for myself for a career that I wanted to start.”

Not only was Henry a top-notch football player at West Forsyth, he also one of the best basketball players for the Titans. As a junior, Henry helped the Titans to a 27-3 overall record and 11-1 in the Central Piedmont 4-A. He chose not to play basketball his senior season because he wanted to focus on getting ready to play college football.

“There was a lot of raw talent that took place on both sides, whether it be football or basketball,” he said. “There was definitely work put in, but if I could do it all over again, I would love to have put that work in a lot earlier in my process and I think that would’ve helped me more. But from just the standpoint of going out there playing I treated it then how I treat it now, just going out there and having some fun. And that’s what got me here.”

Henry quickly saw how much different it was to be at Clemson on one of the best football teams in the country.

“It’s really more of you don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “If I didn’t think I put in enough work I wouldn’t be credited with the opportunity to play at such a great school and be one of the best players in the country. So, it was really more of a, once you get to school, you realize how some of your teammates are stronger than you, and some of your teammates are faster than you, and some of your teammates are weaker and slower.

“You always want to be the best of the best. So, just like anything else, I just knew there was more work that could’ve been put in. And that’s what helped me understand and grow through the collegiate process, was there was always more work you could’ve put in.”

Henry redshirted his freshman season in 2018. However, redshirted players are permitted by the NCAA to play up to four games. He did just that.

“That was cool,” he said. “At that time, I didn’t know I was redshirted. I played my fourth game and I talked with Dad, and we just kind of talked about how I wanted my career to look for myself. And having such a great defensive line in front of me. I knew it was just being able to save that year for a prominent year, which I’m going into now, or just trying to use it to keep my feet wet under some second-half minutes behind such a great D-line.

“It was a pretty easy decision in the grand scheme of things. I was just playing when my time was called. That was fun. I was definitely a deer in the headlights for a freshman.”

In Henry’s freshman season, Clemson was dominant. It went 12-0 overall during the regular season and won the ACC championship, routing Pittsburgh 42-10 in Charlotte.

Included in the four games that Henry played his freshman season was a game at Wake Forest, which was like a home game for him in many ways — playing near his hometown and playing against a college where his father used to be an assistant coach. The Tigers overpowered the Deacons in a 63-3 win.

“That was an awesome experience,” he said. “I love coming home. I love playing Wake Forest. It’s just odd. It’s a good type of odd.”

Clemson was named the No. 2-seed in the CFP and played No. 3 Notre Dame in in Arlington, Texas. Clemson routed Notre Dame 30-3 and advanced to play No. 1 Alabama in Santa Clara, Calif. Clemson continued its dominant ways and pummeled Alabama 44-16 to win the National Championship to finish with a record of 15-0.

Although Henry didn’t play, he was there for the National Championship.

“That was my introduction to college football,” he said. “I didn’t have anything else to think, so we didn’t lose a game that year. That experience for me was winning — a whole lot of winning and a whole lot of fun. It was exciting. That was an exciting year. I hadn’t known anything different up until that point, so I was just kind of soaking it all in.”

During Henry’s second season at Clemson, his first true season, Clemson finished the regular season 12-0 and 8-0 in the ACC. It defeated Virginia 62-17 in the ACC Championship in Charlotte, and it was named the No. 3 seed in the CFP. It defeated No. 2 Ohio State 29-23 in Glendale, Ariz.

Clemson then played No. 1 LSU, one of the best college football teams in history, in New Orleans for the National Championship. LSU, with quarterback Joe Burrow and receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, won 42-25 to end Clemson’s season at 14-1.

“I’d only known winning,” Henry said. “(We) only lost to LSU that year. It was just a really good football team. That was probably the first time in all of sports, honestly, where you just realize that we worked hard. We just felt that we had all the right pieces, but they were just better on that day. It kind of shows where a lot of those players are now.”

After losing in the National Championship to LSU, about two months later, COVID-19 hit. There was uncertainty as to whether there would be a 2020 season that fall or not. There turned out to be a season, and Clemson finished 10-2. Notre Dame, which was part of the ACC that season, defeated visiting Clemson 47-40 during the regular season. However, the same two teams met in the ACC Championship in Charlotte and Clemson won 34-10.

“We weren’t really worried about LSU,” Henry said. “That was the year COVID started. So, that was kind of a whirlwind in itself. But the prior season was the last thing of our worries. It was kind of just, ‘Are we going to have a season?'”

Clemson was the No. 2-seed in the CFP and lost to No. 3 Ohio State 49-28 in the semifinals in New Orleans.

In the Ohio State game, Henry tore some ligaments in his left knee. He worked through it that offseason to get back to playing at full strength.

“Really just trying to fight back was my biggest deal,” he said. “That was a different experience, as well. I’ve never been injured to that magnitude before. Getting a chance to really go through that process and be humbled by the experience, fighting through something else on my journey. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Last season, Clemson was 4-3 through the first seven games, but quickly rebounded and finished 10-3 overall, 6-2 in the ACC, and defeated Iowa State 20-13 in the Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

“Finishing with the longest active winning streak in college football was kind of something we’re hanging our hats on right now, and going into this season,” Henry said. “It just wasn’t up to our standards last season, but we were able to have another 10-win season, we won a bowl game, so if that’s a bad year then…”

During last season, Henry, who made the ACC’s All-Academic Team, kept moving up the ladder and played more. He played in 13 games, including four starts, and he finished with 28 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, and fumble recovery.

According to Henry, he went through the process of being evaluated by the NFL to see what it thinks of him, as well as what he needs to improve. Also, because of COVID-19, he could have another year of eligibility, which would be his sixth, next year if he wants it. He said he will make a decision on his playing status after this season.

“Sometimes I’ll go up and watch my freshman film just to remind myself where I’ve come from and the strides I’ve taken,” he said. “That’s always cool just to see the development because it’s not something you really expected to happen. I’ll continue to develop, so I love that.”

As the college football season approaches, Henry has stayed most of this summer in Clemson. Part of the reason is to get ready for the new defensive and offensive schemes. Brent Venables, the longtime defensive coordinator at Clemson, left after last season and was named the head coach at Oklahoma, and has been replaced by Wes Goodwin, who is the defensive coordinator, and Mickey Conn, who is the co-defensive coordinator.

“I’ve made sure that I’ve spent my summer here at Clemson just working as much as I can,” Henry said. “I try and see my family periodically, but they understand what type of year I want it to be for myself. But they’ve been very supportive, and I just try to keep my head down and stay near Clemson as much as I could, and just work.”

Family is a big part of Henry’s life. In addition to his dad, Keith, there is his mother, Nicole, as well as three siblings. This summer has been a trying one for the family because Keith just had a successful kidney transplant. They went through the process, and as it turned out, one of Nicole Henry’s cousins donated a kidney to Keith.

“It was heartwarming,” K.J. Henry said. “To know that that was the type of love we have in our family. I want both of them to be healthy, so (I’m) a little anxious, but more than anything, I knew it was in God’s hands. So, there was nothing for me to worry about. It was definitely something we were grateful for because it’s not a situation everybody gets.”

Practice started last Friday, and Clemson opens the season Sept. 5 against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. One of the games on the schedule is a trip to Winston-Salem on Sept. 24 to play Wake Forest.

“I expect some success, to the highest degree,” Henry said. “We expect to hit all of our goals that we have for ourselves as players and as teammates. But, we should expect to get back to winning. Every time we step on the field we expect to win. I definitely, from what I’ve seen out of my teammates this offseason, the type of consistency that they put into their work, the way they’re coming to attack each day, it’s definitely encouraging.

“I know who I’m going to battle with every Saturday. And I’m just excited.”