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‘I invite the pressure’: Linebacker Daiyan Henley takes center stage at Washington State’s pro day

PULLMAN – When Daiyan Henley took center stage, everyone stopped to watch.

A large gathering of spectators formed a circle around one section of the field at Washington State’s indoor practice facility. In the middle was Henley – the Cougs’ superstar linebacker last year and star of the show Tuesday during WSU’s pro day.

For 15 uninterrupted minutes, Henley auditioned for an audience that gave him its full attention. All other activity in WSU’s “bubble” paused. There was a certain captivation among the crowd as the future NFL player breezed through agility drills.

Henley glided past obstacles, showing off his acceleration and footwork. He caught passes in stride and exhibited the pure athleticism that he’d put on display during WSU’s 2022 season.

“To be out there by myself, you look at it like, ‘Dang, I’m by myself; I’m going to have a lot of pressure on me,’ ” Henley said. “But then, it’s like, this is where you want to be. This is where I want to be – to go out there and have that moment in this whole process … I invite the pressure.

“Having that drill session was big, because when you’re by yourself in those types of moments, where you’re being watched by 30 teams or so, you have to have that mindset – it’s not just about getting the job done, but doing it the right way and making sure it’s 100% every time.”

Henley and nine other former Cougars trained in front of 23 NFL scouts. The aspiring players started the day inside the WSU weight room with physical measurements, then took turns on the bench press before testing their vertical jumps.

The event concluded with a two-hour stretch of field work at the practice facility. Indoor exercises included the broad jump, 40-yard dash and shuttle drills.

The scouts, pro-day participants and approximately 100 others in attendance – WSU’s coaching staff, many current players and athletic department personnel – came together for Henley’s solo session before several individual periods that focused on specific position groups. To be sure, Henley captured much of the day’s focus.

“Most of (the scouts) are saying, ‘We like you,’ which is a good thing to hear,” Henley said.

“This is an interview. Every part of this process has been an interview. Everything I put out there is part of my resume.”

Of the 10 pro-day participants, Henley is the only one projected to be picked in the NFL draft, which begins April 27. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder could be selected as early as the second round, according to multiple outlets.

“I’m counting the days, counting the hours, counting the minutes (until draft day),” Henley said. “At this point, I wish it was tomorrow. This process is long.”

Henley was a standout in February at the Senior Bowl showcase in Mobile, Alabama. Playing middle linebacker during the all-star game, Henley had a microphone in his helmet and called out plays.

“With the Senior Bowl, being able to be a vocal leader, be placed as the ‘mike’ and have the microphone in my helmet … that was big for me to show that I can do that,” Henley said.

He boosted his draft stock again at the NFL combine early this month, posting respectable marks in speed and agility drills. Henley ran the 40 in 4.54 seconds – 10th among linebackers at the combine.

“To go to the combine and put up the numbers I did – that was as planned,” he said.

Henley did not participate in the 40 or cone drills during pro day, but recorded impressive marks in the vertical jump and broad jump, and had 19 reps on the bench press.

Henley had a vertical of 37½ inches and a broad jump of 10-4 – both better than the combine average for linebackers.

“I think I’ve been able to showcase everything I’ve planned on doing this offseason,” he said. “I’d say this process has been going how I planned it to go. There’s always room for improvement, but until that moment comes, I think I’m satisfied with how it’s been going so far.”

A Los Angeles native, Henley began his collegiate career as a receiver/return man at Nevada. He switched to defensive back full time in 2019, then transitioned to linebacker in 2020. Henley’s multifaceted background makes him an appealing prospect to pro organizations.

Henley transferred to WSU ahead of the 2022 season and immediately became the headliner of the Cougars’ defense. He earned a spot on the All-Pac-12 first team and was the first WSU player to be named a Butkus Award finalist.

Henley led his team and finished second in the conference with 106 tackles.

“I’m a versatile player that doesn’t come off the field,” Henley said when asked how he’s been pitching himself to scouts. “I’m there for every down. Beyond that, I’m a special-teams core player … from kickoff, to punt, to punt return and being a kickoff returner once upon a time.

“I’ve been kind of selling myself as a guy that doesn’t need to come off the field.”

After wrapping up his pro day and speaking with several scouts, Henley performed a casual cartwheel-flip for his final show, then met with local media members to reflect on his past and look ahead to his future in the NFL.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with teams that say it’s a mutual interest for me to come out there and play,” he said. “There’s a lot of teams with the same defensive scheme I’ve been playing in. I’m not going to say who those teams are, but to have some teams I know that are rooting for me in that draft, hoping they get me, it’s something I’m happy for.”

More highlights from pro day

Other WSU players to participate in pro day: receivers Renard Bell and Robert Ferrel; defensive tackles Amir Mujahid, Christian Mejia and Antonio Pule III; defensive backs Armani Marsh and Derrick Langford Jr.; guard Grant Stephens and offensive tackle Jack Wilson.

Official 40-yard dash times were not made available, but Bell’s speed stood out among the rest. The slotback, who spent seven years at WSU and tallied 1,966 career yards, had a nice session catching deep passes from Cougar quarterback Cameron Ward.

Henley’s vertical jump was the highest of the day. Ferrel came in second. The 5-6 slotback hit 36 inches.

Langford had the longest broad jump at 10-7 – just above the combine average for CBs.

Wilson, Stephens and Mejia were the strongest players on the bench press at 27, 26 and 25 reps, respectively. Mejia, at 6-3 and 300 pounds, put up excellent numbers in the vertical (32½ inches) and broad jumps (9-6) – both well above the combine average for defensive tackles.

The 6-11, 325-pound Wilson also tried out at tight end. He took the field with Ward, Bell and Ferrel during receiving drills and caught several passes. Wilson spent the past two seasons as a backup offensive tackle for the Cougars’ football program and appeared in 14 games this year for WSU’s basketball team.

Marsh, a Spokane native, was made available to the media after pro day. The former walk-on, who developed into a standout at nickel, said it’s “a dream come true” to get a shot at the pro level.

“I just want (a team) to give me an opportunity and for whoever gets me to know they’re going to get a consistent, dedicated, resilient player who wants to be the best they can be,” Marsh said.

“It just means the world to even be out here and have the opportunity to showcase my skills to play at the next level. It’s definitely something I’ve been waiting for.”

Many of WSU’s current players provided support from the sidelines. Henley only lived in Pullman for one year, but he said it meant “that much more to me” to be surrounded by his former teammates.

“To come back and do my pro day here was always on my agenda,” he said. “No combine invite or a combine invite, it was gonna be, ‘I’m coming back to Pullman, coming back to the Palouse to make sure (scouts) see me in my atmosphere.’ This is home for me. This is my atmosphere. This is where I thrived. This is where my best season as a linebacker happened, so when it’s time for me to go to the league, I’m representing the Cougs.”

Henley is planning to attend at least one WSU game next season.

“Whenever I get my chance to come back and see my boys, especially with them supporting me here, I hope they know that it’s love,” Henley said.