CJ Henderson’s football journey has taken him five hours up the Florida Turnpike, from Miami Columbus High to Gainesville for three years as a standout cornerback with the Florida Gators.
His next stop could be considerably closer.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, just an hour away, hold the ninth pick in the NFL draft and need a starting cornerback to play across the field from Tre Herndon. Practically a local, Henderson makes a lot of sense in that spot even for those who don’t overtly favor hometown prospects.
He was a three-year starter at Florida who logged six interceptions and 20 pass breakups while showing that he never gave up on a play. He once caught speedy South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel from behind before he could reach the goal line and sprinted across the field to tackle Tennessee tight end Austin Pope inside the five-yard line, jarring the ball loose before it bounced into the end zone for what became a touchback.
Henderson declared for the draft in December and sat out the Gators’ Orange Bowl victory over Virginia to prevent possible injury.
“I just felt like I was ready for the next level, the next challenge,” he said of leaving college early at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Henderson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds at the combine and is widely considered the second-best defensive back prospect in the draft, trailing only Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah.
“I'd definitely rank myself No. 1,” Henderson said before adding a disclaimer. “I expect everyone else to rank themselves the same. I highly respect the rest of the corners. What separates me is that I'm a competitor and I'm very smart.”
His bid to stay in his home state is backed by one of the biggest lobbyists around. He is 6-foot-5, 312-pound Jaguars offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor, who played with Henderson at Florida and wants to become a teammate once more. Taylor has pitched Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone on the benefits of picking Henderson.
“Everyone knows how athletic he is and how good he is on the field,” Taylor told the Jacksonville Times-Union. “But he is also very good mentally, and he knows the game of football. Of course, I am pushing for him. I played two years with him in college, and I’m looking forward to hopefully suiting up with him again. I am pushing for him a lot.”
History may also be working in Henderson’s favor. Jacksonville has taken a player from Florida in each of the last two drafts, selecting defensive tackle Taven Bryan in the first round in 2018 and Taylor in the second round in 2019.
Should he be picked by the Jaguars, Henderson would make the Gators three for three.