BIRMINGHAM - Tristan Henderson didn’t sit back and wait for directions when Trent Dilfer was the incoming UAB head coach.
Probably the most accurate description of his approach is Henderson went to work before Dilfer jumped in with both feet. And it began in front of the program’s recruiting board in the Football Operations Center.
“Obviously, I know his background, when it comes to the NFL,” Henderson said earlier this week. “I kind of went and looked at his team. I looked at how his high school team [Lipscomb Academy in Nashville] was made up. Everybody he had at Lipscomb [Academy], had some form of major Power 5 offer. I kind of had to step back and look at our roster and our board. The caliber of kid he is used to is a high caliber kid. They all play Power 5 ball, they all want to play Power 5 ball. Him coming from high school, you just can’t veer off into junior college, because that world is kind of difficult at times.”
His next move, he determined, was more necessary than drastic.
“I took like 38 players off the board,” Henderson said. “I had a little black book that I’ve had for the past couple years, that I put kids that are out of our reach – they’ve got the Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Florida State and all these big schools - and I just put them on the board. I wanted to see what he thought about that. We put them on the board.”
The next step came complete with a lot of coffee and little sleep. It began not long after Dilfer’s Lipscomb Academy team won its second straight Tennessee state championship. Dilfer and his wife, Cassandra, drove to Birmingham from Chattanooga. Cassandra dropped Trent off at the Football Operations Center and he met up with Henderson inside.
“We sat down and watched them all,” Henderson said. “I mean we watched every single one in his first night, especially defense. We had a board of probably 50-something kids. We watched them all.”
Dilfer said they took the recruits and ranked them.
“Tristan did a great job of setting a preliminary board for me,” Dilfer said. “My first look was always kind of a reach guy. That first night, every guy we looked at was probably a reach guy, based on who we are. We rank them 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3. One is they’re going to Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, USC, Michigan, now. Those are the 1s, 1.5, now, they’re a reach, but, you know we might be in play here. Two is high UAB guys, 2.5s are probably Group of 5 guys. Three is probably what you’d call a fall back to a preferred walk on. I watched nothing but 1s and 1.5s the first night.”
The work went until the early hours of the morning. A few hours of sleep were followed by more recruiting work. Potential recruits were added, others were taken off. The board grew to about 90 players. Dilfer said each time they watched tape, it began with prospects from the state of Alabama. Eventually, they chose a top 10 at each position.
The hours remained long. Dilfer and some of his staff, including offensive coordinator Alex Mortensen, defensive coordinator Sione Ta’ufo’ou, defensive line coach Miguel Patrick, tight ends coach Reilly Jeffers and quarterbacks coach Nick Coleman, spent time on the road recruiting. For the most part, Henderson worked from Birmingham. When the UAB players, coaches and staff headed to the Bahamas for the bowl game, Henderson stayed back to work on recruiting. Counting hours wasn’t part of the process.
“To be honest, I didn’t have time to get to that point,” Henderson said. “I kind of understand when it’s go, it’s go. You just have to get it done. I did understand the urgency and I had that urgency, kind of, coming into it.”
For Henderson, the urgency began long before a permanent head coach was put in place. He began putting a plan in place whether Bryant Vincent got the interim tag removed or UAB athletics director Mark Ingram brought in someone new.
“When we got to North Texas, I kind of realized the administration wasn’t going to make a hire until after the season,” Henderson said. “It’s hard to recruit kids when you don’t have a true, solidified head coach. From there, it’s kind of where I started building from that black book of kids. I was like, we’ve got to go do this thing, we’ve got to reach a little bit and try to get bigger caliber kids in. I felt like this kid could flip or he’s decommitted from somewhere, something of that nature. The two student assistants I have – Griffith Pearson and Grayson Bell – I just told them, listen, if they are decommitted from a Power 5 school or they’re decommitted from somebody at a higher level than we are, we need to go find them. We need to get them on the phone, we need to talk to them. Whether it be Coach Vincent or whether it be someone else, we’ve got to have something prepared to show them and we did well.”
Henderson has been around the UAB program for a long time. He was a senior tight end on the 2014 team and began as a volunteer coach when the program returned. He served a variety of roles, largely working with the tight end position. Recruiting was also a passion, he said, but it wasn’t something he felt like would be his main responsibility. That plan has now changed with Dilfer selecting him as the program’s director of recruiting.
After a few days off, including a trip to spend time with family in California, he’ll get back to work on finishing the 2023 recruiting class.
“You kind of exhale and look at what you did [and say], ‘Alright, we’ve got 16 great players signed up and ready to go,’” Henderson said. “That’s great, that’s a great start to a great class. But, how can we get better? What is the process to get better? That’s the focus now, going into January. It’s not what we did these last couple weeks. Now, let’s go get another guy. Let’s go spot it out and be really specific about what we need going into January and then let’s go finish it. Daniel Harris was a good start. Eamon Smalls was a good start. Those are good starts to what we do. We got some hometown guys in Emmanuel Waller, Connor Knight and Amare Thomas, which is great. Now, we’ve got certain positions we still need to fill. Now, let’s go fill them and fill them with dominant players. Right now, it’s good, let’s go be great.”
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