Washington State linebacker Daiyan Henley didn’t always seem destined to be one of the best off-ball linebackers in this draft class. In fact, it’s surprising he ended up playing linebacker at all.
Early in his high school football career, Henley was actually his team’s quarterback. For a while, he said at the NFL Combine, he had “QB dreams.” That was a dream that faded by the time he got to his senior year, when his coach at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles had him play seven different positions that season.
“Going from quarterback to linebacker definitely prepares you in a mental way because you’re preparing for a game the same way,” he said. “Being a quarterback, you want to look at different formations, coverages, you want to see the fronts. Coming to the linebacker position, it’s more so about the eyes—being able to see different pulls and things coming from the line of scrimmage.”
Playing both positions has given Henley a unique perspective on what it takes to be a linebacker. It certainly helped develop his football IQ. Having played on the other side of the ball, the Washington State product knows what a quarterback is looking for both pre- and post-snap and can make more informed reads on the defensive side of things.
As great as his experience as a quarterback is for playing as one of the “quarterbacks of the defense,” it’s impossible not to see how his time at another offensive position has helped him as well. At the start of Henley’s collegiate career, he played as a receiver and kick returner for Nevada for his first two seasons before flipping to the defensive side of the ball.
Henley mentioned that his time as a receiver made his skill set more versatile, pointing to how the quickness and elusiveness necessary to be a successful receiver can also apply to how a linebacker plays downhill and needs to have quick twitch to defend the run. Obviously, that also comes into play when the California native needs to cover receivers on passing downs.
“For me, I’m always looking at it from both sides of the ball, especially when I’m watching film—that’s where my wide receiver instincts kick in. I can watch the film and start keying how they drop into zones, where they want to spot up when they do certain (route) concepts,” he said. “When I’m in the game, I’m a linebacker, through and through. But when I’m watching that film, I’m everyone on the field.”
The cerebral part of the game is clearly all there for Henley with so much experience at different spots on the opposite side of the ball. But playing a position like linebacker also requires plenty of physicality, especially at the NFL level against bigger-bodied linemen, running backs, and even receivers.
That said, Henley made it clear that switching over from taking hits to giving them out has never been an issue for him. He took his first hit at four years old when he saw kids his age playing football, tried to run through one of the Pop Warner practices, and got run over.
“Maybe that’s where I lost a couple screws, but my physicality came in right then and there,” he said.
“I was always a guy who accepted the physicality of the game. So for me to be able to go from the punching bag to hitting the punching bag, that’s where I thrive right now.”
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