2023 NFL Draft

Interview: LB Daiyan Henley Knows His Athleticism Sets Him Apart: ‘I’m Able To Do Things Most Linebackers Don’t Do’

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Washington State LB Daiyan Henley during the media breakfast in Mobile, Alabama at the Senior Bowl. I reached out to Henley first to ask him about his transfer from Nevada where he played college ball for five years to Washington State where he would be named All-Pac-12 Conference First Team in his first and only season with the Cougars.

“The biggest thing for me, just making that transition, was to show that football is football no matter what level you’re playing at,” Henley said. “And not only is that a big point for me, like to sit here and say I went from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, or from a Group of Five to a Power Five… was just to make that statement that I could’ve did that just to make it to the NFL. I want to be able to play with any guy on the field that, which is a big reason for why I’m here right now, is to be able to play against all the competition that I can and excel as best as I can.”

Henley not only fit in when he moved on from Nevada to Washington State, he excelled in a conference that has better competition from top to bottom. Henley posted 106 total tackles (54 solo), 12 TFLs, four sacks, a PBU, an INT, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2022. He was also recognized for his contributions on special teams, being named All-Pac-12 Second Team as an all-purpose/special teams player while leading the defense.

I then asked Henley about the mental makeup of his game and how he is able to process things from the off-ball linebacker position, knowing that the ILB is often the QB of the defense.

“With each season I will say that my instincts have grown,” Henley responded. “Just being a linebacker, being able to study the film, to have three off seasons completely locked in at linebacker, my instincts have grown, and I’ve just been developing that as far as watching film, being able to anticipate plays and seeing formations. So, once you learn these things, like just these small little things, details from being a linebacker, it becomes just that much easier. It’s starting to be like second nature and it’s so much to learn. For me especially, I’ve continued to learn. I love the game so much. I don’t want to just be content with what I can do. I want to do more.”

Henley is truly a student of the game as you can see in his response. You also see it in his football journey to this point, starting out as a WR recruit out of Los Angeles where he played the position for two years at Nevada before shifting over to the defensive side of the ball in 2019, playing safety for four games before suffering a season-ending injury.

Back to full strength in 2020, he moved to linebacker, packing on the size as well as putting his head into the tape to learn the nuances at the position to see the field. With more experience, his instincts and play on the field improved, being named to the All-Mountain West Conference Second Team in 2021 and First Team All-Pac-12 in 2022. Henley has only played linebacker for three seasons, so he is still playing catch up compared to others at the position that have been playing it their entire lives. However, he believes that his pure athleticism and coverage ability gives him an advantage over most of the other linebackers in this draft class.

“Well, I have my most fun I would say outside the box, being able to run, being able to cover,” Henley answered. “That’s why they like me, sideline to sideline type of guy because I’m able to do most things that regular linebackers don’t do. And being in the box is just another way to showcase that I’m physical, so I don’t want to ever come off the field. That’s my biggest thing. That’s what I say is what separates me. That I don’t have to come off the field.”

When watching Henley out in practice last week, you could see that he is much more natural moving in space than most off-ball linebackers. That WR/S background allows him to move laterally and, in a backpedal, quite comfortably. He also feels comfortable playing in various positions on the defense rather than strictly in the box, being able to play overhang, on the edge, or in the slot. Henley has been touted as one of the best coverage linebackers in this draft, and anyone that doubts him on that he encourages to go watch the tape.

“I like to cover tight ends. I’ll cover a slot too if they allow me. I mean, like I said to these coaches, check the tape. I’ve done it. I’ve been able to run with slots. I’ve been able to run with tight ends. So, I’m just saying like, I want to be more than just a box linebacker. And I feel like the proof is in the pudding… basically the film shows. I’m not just talking; the film shows it.”

Henley had decent pass game production at Washington State this season, but he was even better in 2021 when still with Nevada when he had three PBUs and four INTs, one of which he returned for a score.

I then asked Henley if he met with Coach Tomlin on the field and what it would be like to wear the Black and Gold as a potential member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2023 draft class.

“I did, I actually shook his hand,” Henley said about Tomlin. “I’ve kind of met with most of these guys, some longer than others, but I was able to talk to [Tomlin and Grady Brown]. Being able to strap up for any team, I’ll be ready to go. And if that is Black and Gold, it wouldn’t matter if it’s blue, red, it doesn’t matter what color it is. I’m just ready to get on that field and ball on the next level.”

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