This football season has been an up-and-down experience for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
They’re a game over .500 at 5-4 (2-3 in the ACC); earlier this season, they defeated Penn State, which checked in at No. 10 in the second edition of this year’s College Football Playoff rankings. The Panthers have also dropped two straight games — home to Virginia Tech, then a destruction on the road at Miami.
One player who hasn’t wavered in production, though, has been their breakout star of 2016: Quadree Henderson, the ACC’s top kick returner.
Henderson is the ACC’s only player who’s recorded at least 100 yards in all four all-purpose categories: receiving (231), rushing (383), punt returns (129) and kick returns (743). That comes out to 1,486 all-purpose yards (165.1 per game), which is second in the ACC, behind only Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. He’s done all of that on just 95 total touches.
Henderson isn’t just a specialist; he’s been a big factor for Pitt’s offense.
According to Football Study Hall, the sophomore has been targeted on 15.2 percent of Pitt’s passing plays (third on the team). He has a catch rate of 65.6 percent, which is tops among Panthers who have been targeted at least 20 times.
His role in the passing game has dropped off in the last few weeks, though. After recording 15 receptions in the first five games, Henderson has caught just six passes for 73 yards the last four weeks.
His contributions to the run game have been significant as well. Pitt’s offense is centered around the bruising play of James Conner, but the threat of Henderson snapping off a big run on a jet sweep helps keep defenses honest. Football Study Hall has the sophomore slot averaging 9.4 highlight yards per opportunity, which means when Henderson gets adequate blocking, he is running for nearly 10 yards per carry.
As a kick returner, no one’s star has shined brighter.
There have been seven kickoffs returned for touchdowns by ACC players this season; Henderson accounts for three of those. He has five returns of 40-plus yards — by far the most in the conference. All of those explosive plays have translated into an average 33.8 yards per return, which is No. 1 not only in the ACC but also nationally.
Here’s a look at every team’s leading kick returner in terms of average.
When All-ACC voting takes place in a few weeks, Henderson should be a unanimous first-team selection at kick returner. There’s no question that the numbers support it.