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October 8, 2010MADISON -- This is your deal now, take over. Take it on, and go get it.
With those words former Wisconsin free safety Chris Maragos, who was forced out in the final minutes of the Champs Sports Bowl with an injury, handed over the reins to Aaron Henry as he watched from the sideline.
Henry has not looked back since.
"That was it, he went out there, we won the game and ever since then, he's really taken hold of the position, and he's really taken ownership of it," Maragos said. "I couldn't be any more proud of him."
When asked who has helped him in the transition from cornerback to free safety, Henry quickly admits he could run off a long list of names.
Among those that have given Henry advice is current teammate and fellow safety, Jay Valai. What did Valai have to say?
"Always be true to yourself, man," Valai recalled. "Just go out there and play football and don't overthink. You over think stuff, that's how you get beat. Big Ten football's here now, concepts pick up a lot more, teams are going to be better for the most part and you've just got to be ready to play."
Narrowing down the list of names, Henry recognizes the two most influential on his progress at the position.
Fortunately for Henry and the Badgers, those two athletes, Jim Leonhard and Maragos, happen to be playing the position professionally, for the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. Though advice from Leonhard was invaluable for Henry, it was Maragos who truly had the greatest influence on the move from corner to safety.
The strong bond between Henry and Maragos led the two to grow even closer as they worked to help each other improve, both physically and mentally.
"You probably can't see the resemblance, but Chris and I are like brothers," Henry said. "If anybody's going to be critical of me, that I can take, it's him, because we're like family. He'll call me up and be like, 'Aaron, this is something you need to work on. Aaron, when you see so and so coming on a boot, you've got to make sure you cut that.' It was just small things like that to help me fine tune my game."
For Maragos, the decision to help Henry was a no-brainer based on their already close relationship and the strong work ethic possessed by the current UW free safety. While he was working on earning a position of his own with the 49ers, Maragos passed along whatever he could to help Henry.
In the process, Maragos found himself on the other side of things from where he was just a couple years earlier.
"I know for me, Jimmy made things real clear for me," Maragos said. "He kind of has that ability to say like, 'Listen, I'm in it right now, I'm playing these same coverages as you, these are some of the small things that help me out.'
"Now, things that I've acquired through playing the position, that's what I've tried to pass on to Aaron and try to be the same help that Jimmy has been to me than I can be to Aaron."
One of the biggest things Maragos did to help Henry had little to do with the physical nature of the position and everything to do with all the information that comes along with it.
As one of the leaders on defense, Henry had a lot more to learn than as a cornerback.
"I remember talking to Maragos and he was just telling me about how free safety in our defense, it's like a code you've got to crack," Henry said. "Once you've cracked the code, everything is going to be pretty easy. I feel like I've cracked that code, so things are starting become a whole lot clearer and smoother."
"As a safety you have to know so many different things and I think a lot of things can kind of run together," Maragos said. "But when you get it and when things click, it's like the code has been broken and you can see how clear everything is, and you can know how to play everything exactly how it should play out."
So far, the early results would indicate Henry has in fact cracked the code.
Through five games, Henry has already matched his total from a year ago with 18 tackles. His five pass breakups are already a career-high, and his first two career fumble recoveries have come this season. On top of all that, he added his second career touchdown at UNLV.
Not only is Henry making plays, he's made a name for himself with big hits on opposing receivers. The biggest difference in Henry now compared to when he first made the switch?
"Confidence," Valai said. "Confidence is everything. If you don't have confidence in yourself, it's tough to be out there making plays on the football field because you don't believe in yourself. I think confidence is probably the biggest thing at any position, and once Aaron's gained his confidence, he's been great."