Culture / Sporting Life

The Underdog Story of Ta’Zhawn Henry and His UH Rise — Fighting Small Back Bias, Losing Kliff Kingsbury and Finally a Lead Role Back Home

Running to Prove His Doubters Wrong


Ta’Zhawn Henry knows big plays the way Bo Jackson used to know everything. The University of Houston’s “new” starting running back seems to collect them. Henry’s been doing that as long as Patrick Jefferson’s known him.

Jefferson was Henry’s position coach at Lamar High School, where the little back (Henry doesn’t stand much taller than Astros star Jose Altuve) built a big reputation. Jefferson will never forget Henry’s first scrimmage as a sophomore with the varsity. Henry touched the ball six times against Rosenberg’s Terry High School — and scored six touchdowns.

From there, a mini high school legend built. There is the time Henry hurdled over two would be tacklers in a game against Westbury, which earned him notice (and an awed retweet) from Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott. The time he made a toe-tapping catch in the end zone with inches to spare to complete a long touchdown catch that started with him leaking out of the backfield.

But the highlight plays that Ta’Zhawn Henry seems to specialize in is not why Jefferson believes UH fans should be excited to have Henry as the clear No. 1 running back, the guy who Cougars coach Dana Holgorsen says whatever he “can handle he’s going to get” in terms of workload with Alton McCaskill sidelined with an ACL tear.

Instead Jefferson, who is now Lamar’s academic dean, points to how Henry stepped up whenever Lamar needed him most. Like the time he ran for 296 yards and three touchdowns on a broken big toe on a windy day in Aldine to beat Eisenhower. Or when he ran the 200 meter for Lamar’s track team at the district meet to help his school win the whole thing.

“He didn’t necessarily want to do it, but he did because it was going to help the team,” Jefferson tells PaperCity, talking about Henry taking on the race that no one else wanted to do. “. . . It was more about let me do this to help Lamar win and continue that tradition we’d instilled.

“. . . I mentioned that toughness, running for 280 yards (plus) on a broken bone. He’s got that chip on his shoulder.”

Now, Ta’Zhawn Henry has the chance to carry the chip. A lot. All these years later, Henry is in a featured back position for what could be one of the more explosive offenses in college football. Almost eight years after he first started getting noticed at Lamar, four seasons after he burst onto the scene at Texas Tech as a freshman scat back that Kliff Kingsbury loved to use in his creative offensive gameplans, Henry is getting another chance to show the football world what he can do.

It may have taken McCaskill, last year’s freshman sensation for Houston, tearing up his knee in spring ball to open the door wider, but the opportunity is here.

Patrick Jefferson cannot wait to see what Ta’Zhawn Henry does with it.

“He’s a kid that gets better with more carries,” Jefferson says. “And you wouldn’t think that with his stature. But kind of the more involved he is in the game, the better he gets. He just kind of has this innate vision.

“You really can’t coach it. I used to always joke with him in high school. I’d say, ‘Man, I coach you for the first three steps and that’s it.’ ”

After that, Henry’s instincts take over.

“He does things that you shouldn’t be able to do on the football field,” Jefferson says. “Just with his vision, ability to make cuts. He just has that natural feel.”

The University of Houston Cougars met Southern Methodist Univesity, Saturday October 30, 2021 at TDECU Stadium
Ta’Zhawn Henry gives Houston another look at running back. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

So what does Ta’Zhawn Henry think of this new, long-awaited No. 1 role? Well, in his only session with reporters during UH’s fall camp, Henry seems much more excited to talk about his teammates than himself. When the subject turns to (USC transfer) Brandon Campbell, who will start the season as the No. 2 back, or redshirt freshman tailback Stacy Sneed or the offensive line, Henry becomes very expressive.

When given a chance to talk about himself though, Henry largely just gives quick short answers.

“Just doing what I can do to best back I can be,” he says. “Help my team win. Whatever I can do, I’m going to do it.”

In contrast, on Campbell, Henry gushes: “He brings everything to the table. He’s a great back. He’s been telling me things I didn’t do right. And I’m trying to coach him up.”

“I think he plays with that chip on his shoulder. Just to prove people wrong. To prove people that know a lot about football wrong.” — Lamar’s Patrick Jefferson on Ta’Zhawn Henry

Houston’s new starting running back is equally enthusiastic about Sneed, the redshirt freshman who will get his first carries his season after sitting out the last two. “Stacy Sneed is gas,” Henry says, the excitement picking up in his voice. “We call him Sneed for speed.

“He’s coming in. He’s a younger back. He’s doing everything right on the field and off the field. He’s going to be a good part of the offense this year.”

To Jefferson, this is Ta’Zhawn Henry being Ta’Zhawn Henry. The kid who always put the team first. The tough battlers who ran for all those yards on that painful broken big toe. The one who ran the race nobody else wanted to run because it’d help the team.

Ta’Zhawn Henry and the Kliff Kingsbury Experience

Henry thought he’d have a real chance to be the featured back at a major college football program before now. He burst onto the scene as a true freshman at Texas Tech, racked up 153 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns in a win over Major Applewhite’s last Houston team. Kingsbury loved to find ways to use Henry’s speed, delighted in tormenting opponents with the little back that no one could catch.

His next season in Lubbock, Henry figured to have an even bigger role. But he got banged up later in that freshman year and the wheels started to come off for Texas Tech. Kingsbury ended up getting fired after a 5-7 season.

Things worked out mighty fine for Kingsbury, who ended up getting scooped up by the Arizona Cardinals. But Ta’Zhawn Henry felt some of the fallout. Texas Tech’s next coach, Matt Wells, didn’t believe in short running backs. Henry still produced when given the ball the next season, but he could feel his opportunity shrinking.

He needed a new program. He needed another who coach isn’t afraid to get a little crazy on offense. Cue Dana Holgorsen and his University of Houston rebuild.

“College coaches either go one of two ways on running backs that are 5-foot-8 on a good day,” Jefferson tells PaperCity. “They either are OK with small running backs. Like the Tavon Austin type. Darren Sproles is kind of like the classic comparison. Or they just hate them and they want the guy that’s 6-2 and 210 pounds.

“And that’s not Ta. I would always joke with those guys like ‘Look, you’re either going to recruit him or he’s going to beat you.’ He and I would talk some about that. About there’s a lot of guys that doubt you.

“So I think he plays with that chip on his shoulder. Just to prove people wrong. To prove people that know a lot about football wrong.”

Holgorsen did not need any convincing. He’s the coach who turned Tavon Austin into Tavon Austin at West Virginia. Holgorsen knows how to make small, speedy backs who can catch the ball into devastating game breakers.

Which is what Ta’Zhawn Henry will admit he’s excited about. Henry had a good return to football season in 2021 (he transferred from Texas Tech before today’s more player-friendly rules and had to sit out the 2020 season). Playing behind McCaskill, Henry ran for 513 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Caught 20 passes. Ripped off that conference record 97-yard touchdown run against South Florida. Had that touchdown run against Navy where he just seemed to dance his way through traffic and would be tacklers inside the 5-yard line.

But Henry is still certain he can do much more. Especially when it comes to catching passes from Clayton Tune in the open field.

“I feel like I’m more than a running back,” Henry says. “I feel like I can go out and run routes. Catch the ball out of the backfield. Get in the slot, run routes in the slot. That’s what I want to do more.”

He will get his chances in this Houston offense, more touches than he ever has before. A big season from Ta’Zhawn Henry would be something of a full circle moment.

But whatever happens, Henry’s already charted a winning life path for himself. After starting out as an indifferent student at Lamar, he made the dean’s list three times at Texas Tech. He’s on track to become the first member of his family to graduate from college in December.

Jefferson, who says he considers Henry like a son, couldn’t be more proud. Henry’s old high school position coach is thankful his car is getting less of a workout too. Patrick Jefferson used to drive nine hours each way to Lubbock to watch Henry play and make sure there was someone waiting for him after his games.

Having Henry playing in the Third Ward reduces that commute considerably. The kid who always enjoyed being part of a team has found a new one in Houston, one with plenty of talent around him. Just like Ta’Zhawn Henry likes it.

“We never had to worry about a kid like him demanding the football so to speak,” Jefferson says. “We probably should have given him the ball more. . . He’s always been a team first kid. And I think you still see that now.

“You see him at practice, he’s so supportive of his teammates.”

“I feel like I’m more than a running back. I feel like I can go out and run routes.” — Ta’Zhawn Henry

Henry isn’t trying to make this UH season his story. For him, it needs to be much bigger than that. It needs to be about the joy he gets from trying to block veteran safety Hasaan Hypolite in practice every day. About the daily battle. About his guys.

“I mean, the defense, they flying around every day,” Henry says when I ask him about the practice atmosphere. “They bringing it to us. Honestly, I feel like we’re playing against the best defense in the country.

“If we compete with them every day — go hard at them every day — Saturday’s going to be real easy for us.”

Ta’Zhawn Henry lets loose a little grin. Houston’s new No. 1 running back is happy. He’s talking about his teammates again.


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