Panther-lair - Hendrix keeps following his path
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Hendrix keeps following his path

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The man Dewayne Hendrix was supposed to play opposite on Tennessee’s defensive line now has a Super Bowl ring.

Hendrix and Derek Barnett were both part of Tennessee’s 2014 recruiting class. Both were four-star defensive end prospects and both matched the position’s archetype, standing over 6-3 and weighing more than 260 pounds as freshmen.

Barnett progressed quicker than Hendrix in their freshman year, earning a starting job in the preseason, but Hendrix was right behind him on the depth chart and had reason to believe he could earn a spot with the eventual graduation of veterans Curt Maggitt and Corey Vereen.

But Hendrix decided to transfer to Pitt after his freshman year, and his and Barnett’s careers took very different paths. Barnett was All-SEC as a sophomore and All-America as a junior, recording a school-record 33 sacks in three seasons to break the mark set by Reggie White. He was taken by the Eagles with the No. 14 overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft and helped bring Philadelphia its first Super Bowl title as a rookie, recording five sacks in the regular season and recovering a critical late fumble in the Eagles’ Super Bowl win over the Patriots.

Hendrix, meanwhile, had to sit out two seasons after his transfer - the first because of NCAA transfer rules, the second because of a foot injury suffered three series in to the Panthers’ first game of the 2016 season. He finally got on the field and stayed there last season, starting 10 games, but his lack of game experience was evident.

Still, Hendrix has kept his head even as his career has moved as a much slower pace than that of his former classmate. He has been thrilled to see Barnett’s success and was cheering him on in February.

“It was crazy, man,” Hendrix said. “He earned it. They were on a great team. Just seeing him get that, it was awesome, man, it really was.”

And he hasn’t been bitter about his own experience either, even though he enters his fifth year of college with just 23 career tackles and three sacks.

“When I was hurt, things were down bad,” Hendrix said. “Transferring, sitting out two years, I just had to be patient. Like my mom always said, ‘look at the bigger picture.’ I knew I would be in the position I’m in today, being out there with those guys. I’m just blessed. Everything that happened to me, I wouldn’t change. It made me who I am today.”

The Panthers’ coaching staff doesn’t want to overproject exactly what Hendrix will be able to do for this year’s Pitt defense, but they do see a much different player than they did a year ago. Hendrix always had the size and athleticism for the position, but he was clearly affected by a lack of game reps.

Now that he finally has a year’s worth of those, he has a much better foundation to build on this spring.

“I like where he’s at,” defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said last week. “… We picked up where we left off with him. It was our third day, first day in pads, but I think a lot of people forget last year was he was really progressing almost like a freshman. He hadn’t played since high school. Physically, he was better than that. But in terms of experience, and those types of things, he was developing through the year. He was in a good place by the end, and now he picked up where he left off.”

The biggest difference in Hendrix now compared to a year ago, Partridge said, is his ability to understand his position in the context of the entire defense. Hendrix has a better idea of what is going on behind him now, Partridge said, which informs his instincts.

“Just response,” Partridge said when asked about Hendrix’s biggest areas of development last season. “Knowing when to take a risk. Playing fast. Understanding the big picture. There’s a lot of development that happens on the field on gameday. He just hadn’t had that experience until last year.”

That makes Hendrix a much more confident player than he’s ever been. With a more informed understanding of what he needs to do, he’s also getting off the ball quicker, according to Partridge and coach Pat Narduzzi.

“I’m a lot more comfortable with my coach and guys that I’m playing around with,” Hendrix said. “Last year was kinda like, ‘Alright, get the feel with things, then take it step-by-step.’ This year, we’re rolling. We’re not really looking back. It’s easier to us.”