‘I’m not a one-dimensional player’: Linebacker Daiyan Henley brings versatility and star potential to WSU Cougars defense

PULLMAN – Daiyan Henley “went through the mix” in his football career, switching positions over and over until he came out of the mix as a complete product at linebacker.

“You see the athlete,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said after Saturday’s game against his newest defensive asset. “It’s amazing throughout history how many times guys don’t play a certain position all their life, and they end up playing that position. Daiyan is going to be one of those guys.

Between his high school days in South Los Angeles and his four seasons in Nevada, Henley held the positions of quarterback, point guard, wide receiver, safety, nickel and kick returner. The sixth-year college kid transferred to his current position in 2020, when he was a junior with the Wolf Pack.

With all of these layers of multi-faceted experience rolled into one, Henley has become an exemplary linebacker, a potential Pac-12 star entering his first and only season at WSU.

“I’ve always considered myself a great athlete,” he said in a recent interview with The Spokesman-Review. “Growing up and playing in so many positions, I’m versatile. I am proud to be able to do a lot. I am not a one-dimensional gamer.

At spring camp, Henley checks every box for the WSU defense. He made a seamless transition to a new team, quickly establishing himself as a leader and one of the Cougs’ most skilled defensemen.

The ideal linebacker qualities are there – the build (6-foot-1, 228 pounds), coupled with impressive agility. And Henley is probably more complete in his knowledge of football and his range of physical tools than the majority of his peers.

“It’s out of respect for every position I’ve played,” he said. “As a receiver, you learn where to sit in the zones and you learn from different points on the field. Becoming a (DB) I had to learn covers and where to be in the field. As for linebacker, I’m in the box now and reading the guard draws, the tackle draws. All of these things that I learned are different aspects of the game. I put these things together to get to know the game better.”

His experience as both a talented player and defensive back is evident in passing. He slips past the intermediate throws for picks and deflections.

“I’m known for being great at coverage,” said Henley, who led all FBS linebackers last year with four interceptions — including a 50-yard pick — 6 at Nevada.

In the ground game, he expects to be a hitter for the Cougars. Henley has the speed to hunt down running backs and can accelerate through gaps up front in a flash.

“Explosion, power and intensity – I would say those words describe how I’ve come this year,” he said when asked about his striking abilities. “Not only me, but I’ve seen it from my teammates. That’s how we all come.

Henley filled a need for WSU when he joined the program, choosing the Pullman School over several other power conference contenders. He takes over from Jahad Woods, a Cougar stalwart at outside linebacker who has started a record 56-game program over the past five seasons.

Replacing Woods is no small task, but the Cougs have replenished with another veteran presence in Henley, who has appeared in 49 Division I games since 2017, including 21 starts as an outside linebacker over the past two years. in Nevada in defensive coordinator Brian Ward’s system. .

Shortly before Henley signed with WSU, the Cougs hired Ward as their new DC/linebackers coach.

“We all know it’s a major support system to have him here,” Henley said. “He’s like my spine. He was my first linebacker coach. He taught me linebacker footwork, how to read the box. Knowing that I would have him again as a coach was a big influence on why I chose to come to Pullman, that’s for sure.

When Ward arrived in Reno ahead of the 2020 season, Henley was listed as a 6-1, 215-pound nickel on the Nevada roster.

“At that point, they were like, ‘You can run with slot machines, chase running backs, but you’re really big to be a nickel. How about going a little further and playing linebacker? Henley recalls his last change of position.

In his first season as a linebacker, Henley finished third among Wolf Pack defensemen with 49 tackles. As a senior in 2021, he made plays all around the court, racking up a team-high 103 saves, as well as six sacks and three fumble recoveries.

“My first season at linebacker was like a culture shock,” he said. “When you’re not used to something, it hits you. In my second season, everything slowed down. Third season, I can only expect it to be even slower.

Described by Ward as a “driven” player who “walks humbly” and has earned the respect of his teammates for “working when no one is looking”, Henley is focused on improving his knowledge of the intricacies of linebacking, so he can become “versatile not only in my athletic abilities, but what I know.”

Cougar’s coaches were impressed with his dedication to the mental side of the game.

“What people don’t see and what I see is behind the scenes how hard he works,” said Dickert, the Cougs’ former DC and LB coach. “He’s in the movie theater, he’s asking questions. When we brought him in, Coach Ward obviously had a relationship, but I was like, ‘Daiyan, now you have two linebacker coaches.’ He asks me questions, we sit down. He sits down with Coach Ward. He is in our establishment all the time. There is an inner motivation in Daiyan that I think will allow him to play in the NFL for a long time.

To reach this point, Henley went through a whirlwind. Drafted as an “athlete” — an offensive utility player — at Crenshaw High, Henley accepted a full Nevada scholarship on drop-in offers from his hometown schools USC and UCLA.

At 185 pounds, Henley earned a spot in the Wolf Pack’s receiving rotation and notched three touchdowns as a true freshman. He doubled as a specialist, averaging 23 yards on 19 kick returns.

His responsibilities expanded in the second year. Henley played a catcher, took reps at “spur” — a nickel-like stance — and returned five kicks.

“They saw that I could gain weight and keep it off and eventually we talked about defense because there was no doubt that I was the most physical receiver when it came to screens and blocks,” Henley said. “They were like, ‘What if you stop taking the hits and go deliver them?’ “

He retained the qualities of a skilful player.

“Once you switch positions, it doesn’t go anywhere – the speed and the athleticism are all there,” he said.

Prior to the 2019 season, Henley moved to high school full-time, but saw his year reduced to four games due to injury. By the time he recovered, Ward had accepted the DC job in Nevada and would soon move Henley into the defensive zone.

“I’ve been through a lot,” Henley said. “I had to fight to get to where I am now.”

From youth football to his high school career, Henley primarily played QB. He shone as a signalman for Crenshaw, but “became more than a quarterback” in his senior year.

The roster turnover had left the Crenshaw Cougars shorthanded in several places.

“Do you think I’ve played a lot of positions now?” said Henley. “We didn’t have a lot of people coming in and we had people leaving. We had about 11 strong athletes. Usually the guys who end up getting offers are the top athletes on the team. I was, so I moved everywhere. I was ready for the challenge. »

He replaced at safety, saw action as a defensive end and played receiver for a few games. He was also Crenshaw’s kicker.

“This past year has shaped my future,” Henley said. “(College scouts) were like, ‘This guy used to be a quarterback, but he does everything and he’s good at it.’ It finally got me an offer as an athlete.

Six years later, he had become a complete package at linebacker and sparked widespread interest at Power Five by entering his name in the transfer portal in December. He narrowed his options to WSU, USC, Washington and Kansas State.

How did the Cougars manage to land the single impact player? The coaching connection with Ward and familiarity with the system certainly factored in, but Henley said that wasn’t the “everything” behind his decision.

He relishes the opportunity to perform on a bright stage for a major conference program with a devoted fan base.

“I want to show that a lot of people underestimated me from the start,” he said. “That’s one of my impact statements: I’ve been overlooked and I feel like I’m as good, if not better, than a lot of guys at this level,” he said. . “I’m here to prove it.”

Like many WSU recruits before him, Henley emphasized the tight-knit nature of the college community, the program, and the city. He enjoys Pullman’s relaxed pace of life.

“It’s very different from LA and Reno,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what it’s all about. It’s a new experience.

“Life is about growing and being able to learn, and I feel like I’ll learn a lot being here.”

No new posts though.

Versatility is family

Daiyan isn’t the only versatile member of the Henley family.

His father, Eugene Henley, also wore many hats.

“He does a bit of everything,” Daiyan Henley said. “He does community work, runs a non-profit organization. The mayor of LA wants him to help reduce crime in the area. And that’s just the community stuff.

“Then you have the most public things about him. He’s in the music industry. He’s a musical director. He has just started in the cinema and he is a television producer. He has a podcast with a variety of different guests. He just had Stephen A. Smith (of ESPN). He is a man of many talents. »

Eugene Henley, nicknamed “Big U” due to his 6-5 stature, is a renowned figure in entertainment and philanthropy in Los Angeles. He worked with successful artists such as Snoop Dogg and the late Nipsey Hussle. He helped produce and was featured in the recently released FX docuseries “Hip Hop Uncovered”, and hosts a popular podcast called “Checc’n In w/Big U”.

In 2004, Eugene Henley founded the non-profit organization “Developing Options”, which aims to provide local youth with “choices beyond gang violence, drugs and crime through: defense of rights, education, resources, training and development and sport”, according to the organization. website. Daiyan Henley’s mother, Stacey, works with Developing Options.

“I haven’t had to live it rough, in terms of what you can expect in Crenshaw, what’s shown to the public – the grit, the grime, the gangs and the graphic stuff,” said Daiyan Henley. “I’ve seen both sides, but I’ve been able to stay young and live the right way, and I enjoy the sport because of that. I’ve never fallen into that trap, and it’s because of my parents.

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