After spending his sophomore season, in 2012, apprenticing under two senior starters, Mallard Creek High cornerback Amari Henderson took advantage of their graduation last year to help the Mavericks win a state championship.
Within a year, Henderson transformed from a young, inexperienced backup to one of the top defensive backs in the state and a major college recruit.
Last month, Henderson committed to Wake Forest and is poised to help Mallard Creek repeat as 4AA state champs.
“He’s been a leader for us, especially in the secondary,” said Mallard Creek head coach Michael Palmieri. “He’s fantastic kid on and off the field.”
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A product of the Beatties Ford Saints and Northside Hurricanes youth football programs, Henderson says he’s been playing organized football since age 4. He played two years at Ridge Road Middle School before landing at Mallard Creek High in 2011.
Henderson played on the junior varsity team as a freshman. While returning a punt against Vance in a mid-season game that year, Henderson broke his wrist trying to keep his balance while making a cut.
“It was hard just watching my teammates go out and practice, lifting weights and going out for the games,” said Henderson. “I still supported my teammates. I went to every game and every practice. I went to rehab. It was hard, but it was a good experience, seeing you can lose the game of football at any time.”
The following spring, Palmieri was impressed enough with Henderson that he pulled him aside one day and told him he was going to be a vital part of the varsity team next fall. Henderson admits that, at the time, he was a bit surprised.
Palmieri already had built Mallard Creek into one of the state’s top programs, and Henderson understood there was no shame in being a backup to two established senior cornerbacks who were college-bound: Playing ahead of Henderson were Brian Walker and Anthony Covington.
Coming out of Mallard Creek, Walker was considered the No. 14 cornerback in the country by ESPN.com, which ranked Covington the No. 62 cornerback.
Walker eventually signed with North Carolina and played in all 13 Tar Heels games last year. Covington played last season at Appalachian State but transferred to Charlotte this past summer.
In the Mavericks’ first game of the 2012 season, against Butler at Memorial Stadium, Henderson came off the bench to make an interception on his first series and almost returned it for a touchdown. He ended up playing a lot as a sophomore because Mallard Creek’s victories were often so lopsided the reserves were called in early.
Last season, Mallard Creek scored so many points – averaging 50 per game – that its defense sometimes got overlooked. With several top NCAA recruits at every position, the Mavericks held opponents to an average 9.7 points per game.
“(Henderson) is a playmaker for us,” said Palmieri. “We put him on everybody’s best receiver. He’s a shut-down corner. Our corners are very important to us. He’s one of the reasons we had such a great defense last year.”
With fellow senior Nafees Lyon, a Charlotte recruit, Mallard Creek may have the best pair of cornerbacks in the state.
At 6-foot-1 1/2 and 182 pounds, Henderson is among the growing trend of tall-and-long cornerbacks. College coaches started to recognize his abilities and he received numerous scholarship offers including those from Charlotte, Penn State, Kansas State and Kentucky.
“I had a lot of schools come after me,” said Henderson. “Wake Forest was a great fit for me. They have a new coaching staff. I’m really excited for the Wake Forest program. It’s right down the road (in Winston-Salem). The education is great. The coaching staff is unbelievable, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to change the program around.”