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KJ Henry wants to 'be a sponge' as he adjusts to the NFL


Life is about change, and KJ Henry has felt that plenty over the last month.

Earlier this year, Henry's days were dedicated to preparing for the NFL Draft and wrapping up his college career at Clemson. Now, Henry is at the Washington Commanders' facility, hundreds of miles away from where he's spent the last five years of his life, with new teammates trying to find his place among the professional ranks.

But when Henry takes away the fact that he's in different league playing for a different team with different teammates in different uniforms at technically a different position (he was listed as an EDGE at Clemson but will be a defensive end with the Commanders), not much has changed for him.

"A lot of things change," Henry said. "Football doesn't."

It's been a while, but Henry has been in this situation before. He knows what it's like to be in a completely new environment with a mound of information to learn. And Henry knows the solution for that challenge, too: be teachable and soak in as much knowledge as possible.

"I'm just trying to erase everything and be a sponge," Henry said at the end of rookie minicamp practice on May 12.

Well, maybe not everything. His experience, quickness off the line of scrimmage and talent for disruption is what made him such an attractive prospect to Ron Rivera and the Commanders' staff. Rivera believes the fact that he was playing opposite Trenton Simpson -- a higher-rated prospect who was taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the third round -- made people overlook Henry's 13.5 sacks he racked up with the Tigers.

"KJ Henry is a dynamic outside edge player," Rivera said after the draft. "The tape that you watch...he's there making plays and so he's a guy that we wanted to add."

Still, Henry's mindset is in the right place. He knows all the accomplishments he had in college amount to mere footnotes in the NFL, and he needs to earn a spot on what is already one of the most talented defensive lines in the sport.

So, while the traits he developed in college are helpful -- he had a nice rep during practice where he ran past tackle Drew Himmelman during 11-on-11 drills -- he must build on them if he hopes to put together a long NFL career.

"I feel like I'm prepared," Henry said. "And I think it showed today, but at the same time, I'm out here with the mindset of trying to soak everything up. There's some techniques that I do here now that I used to do in college that I'm having to switch."

Check out the top photos of the Commanders' draft picks, undrafted free agents and tryout players going through the first practice of rookie minicamp. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)

And Henry has already learned a couple valuable lessons: the NFL is much faster than college, and all the details, no matter how small, carry more weight. Henry experienced both of those facts during the first practice of rookie minicamp. There were times when he would immediately recognize that he could have performed better on a play or done something differently.

Memorizing new techniques after playing a completely different way in college will be a challenge, Henry said, but paying attention to those details is what he took pride in during his time at Clemson. Not only was he able to know his responsibility, but he was also able to read certain keys that could provide hints on what the offense was going to run.

He also knows that he's not going to get to that point on Day 1.

"Starting from scratch, I have to know my job, be able to do my techniques, and then as time progresses, start to add those layers as well," Henry said.

Henry prepared for practice with no expectations of how he would look. It was his first day of putting the small sample of concepts he had been exposed to into action on the field. He reminded himself that there are going to be mistakes mixed in with the positives, so he needs to give himself a little grace as he gets used to being in the NFL.

The next step is to correct those mistakes, and as he looks forward to the next few months of practice, he's excited to begin that process.

"I feel really happy," Henry said. "But I also know there's room for growth."

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