A.J. Hendy waited patiently for this moment, because he’s hardly the type to make a fuss. The Maryland junior watched as cornerback Jeremiah Johnson fractured his toe and cornerback Dexter McDougle underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, and wondered whether this meant his moment had finally arrived. Hendy had spent two seasons in reserve roles, missing time last fall with an ankle injury, but with two starting defensive backs sidelined and questions swirling around the unit’s future productivity, the Maryland football team needed someone like Hendy to play hero.
“I like it’s my time,” Hendy said Saturday afternoon after the Terps’ 37-0 demolition of West Virginia at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. “I’m a junior, I’m healthy, I’m ready to go. I feel like the DBs we have, the defense we have, everyone’s going to make plays.
“This year, when those guys went down, it’s unfortunate. You don’t want that to happen to anyone on the team. But guys have to step up. That’s how winning teams start, that’s how winning teams begin.”
Hendy’s first big play Saturday came when he was the gunner on punt coverage. He saw a stiff wind send Nathan Renfro’s booming punt over the head of Ronald Carswell, and the Alabama transfer drifted backward and let the football bounce. As it caromed up, striking Carswell and fluttering away, Hendy pounced on it. Three players later, Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown found Dave Stinebaugh for a six-yard touchdown and the Terps’ first points.
Hendy one-upped himself soon after. West Virginia quarterback Ford Childress dropped back in the pocket on third and 12, spying a receiver cutting toward the Mountaineers sideline. The Terrapins were in a man concept, and teammate Will Likely had remembered the play from film study, so he called the out route before it ever happened.
“I felt like I was in a position for the pick, and the quarterback threw it right to me,” Hendy said. He snagged the interception, tiptoed the sideline and returned it 28 yards into the end zone, peeling off imaginary dollar bills to the crowd as he shuffled to the sideline, a celebration he and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart developed during practice the week before.
Just for good measure, Hendy officially ended West Virginia’s miserable afternoon with a fourth-quarter blitz, whiffing on the sack but recovering a Childress fumble when defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson pancaked the quarterback instead. Over the next two days, he would become the first Maryland player to win the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week award and the second straight Terps defensive back to win ACC weekly honors.
“Does it surprise me that he does those things?” Coach Randy Edsall asked rhetorically during his Sunday teleconference. “No. That’s the way he practices and that’s the way he prepares. A.J.’s out there every day, working hard, just trying to take advantage of his opportunities.”
Except this summer, the Terps coaching staff ruled that Hendy hadn’t taken enough advantage of his opportunities, or at least not enough to beat safety Sean Davis for a starting role. At the time, Edsall said Hendy “wasn’t happy about it,” but insisted he keep a positive attitude, effectively calling the junior a starter anyway.
“He was a starter in our dime package, then I told him what he has to do is go out and work really hard in practice, a shot could come at safety, and if it does he has to be ready to go,” Edsall said. “He can’t sit around and mope and complain and have body language and show you’re selfish. Go do something about it. I know he might not agree with the decision we made, but that’s what we made in terms of the information we had.”
Without McDougle and Johnson available, worries surfaced over a Maryland secondary that was missing its two biggest pieces, heading into a game against West Virginia’s vaunted “Air Raid” offense. How would those losses impact depth, down in the nickel and dime packages necessary to defend three- or four-wide receiver sets?
Hendy silenced those concerns. Quickly.
“That’s where he’s a great role model for other guys,” Edsall said. “All he’s done is just work harder and look what it’s got him. He’s doing more, he’s contributing, and when he’s out there playing, he’s playing at a very high level. That’s the thing all of our guys have to do. You get out on the field because you earn it, you don’t get out there because you’re a nice guy. I told the team, it doesn’t surprise me that he performed the way that he did, because of how hard he works.”