By Jim Rueda
Free Press Sports Editor
ST. JAMES —
Tyler Henderson came to the Minnesota State football program two years ago as a walk-on, hoping to work hard and take advantage of any opportunity so that some day he would earn scholarship money.
On Thursday, interim coach Aaron Keen told Henderson that he had earned a partial scholarship for next year.
“That’s a goal I’ve been trying to accomplish,” Henderson said. “Sometimes, it’s frustrating being a walk-on. My parents have always supported me so it’s more of a relief right now.”
Henderson, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker, has moved into a starting role during the Mavericks’ spring practice. The former Mankato West safety is replacing Marcus Hall-Oliver, the team’s second-leading tackler, at the Buck position. It’s one of the few holes left by graduation in a defense that was nationally ranked last season.
“I figured after Marcus left that I had a chance to move up,” Henderson said. “There’s maybe a little more pressure. I have some big shoes to fill.”
Henderson’s football journey started with a couple of seasons as the starting safety at West. He was recruited by St. Cloud State, Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf, but he decided that his best option was to stay in Mankato, where his grandpa and uncle both attended college.
“I used to go to games with my grandpa, and I loved it,” Henderson said. “I’ve always felt comfortable there.”
As a redshirt, he worked on learning the college game and its daily demands, building up his strength and size. There were times when he wondered if the reward would be worth the effort.
But last season, Henderson began to get playing time, mostly on special teams.
“He’s really a skilled kid,” Keen said. “You really saw him make an impact on special teams. He was outstanding, and we got excited about his future.”
Henderson finished with 22 tackles, playing in all 14 games. Keen likes Henderson in the Buck position, where the outside linebacker plays more in space, is often the blitzer and is sometimes asked to cover the slot receiver.
“When you have 28 scholarships, and even in Division I, there’s a great need for great walk-ons,” Keen said. “We just don’t recruit walk-ons to have bodies. We recruit walk-ons that we think can have an impact at some time. We tell them that if you’re able to play, you’ll earn some scholarship money.”
So Henderson goes to practice each day, trying to learn more about his role on the defense and make fewer mistakes than he made the practice before. It’s been an exciting spring, knowing that if he continues to catch the coaches’ eyes with his play-making ability, he’ll be rewarded on Saturdays this fall.
“You see big-time players who get scholarships that don’t have to try as hard,” Henderson said. “As a walk-on, you have to push yourself to get better and do everything you can do.”