PULLMAN – Daiyan Henley “went through the blender” in his football career, switching positions over and over until he emerged from the mix as a complete product at linebacker.
“You see the athlete,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said after Saturday’s scrimmage of his newest defensive standout. “It’s amazing throughout history how many times guys don’t play a certain position their whole life, and they end up starring at that position. Daiyan’s going to be one of those guys.”
Between his prep days in South Los Angeles and four seasons at Nevada, Henley has lined up at quarterback, edge rusher, wide receiver, safety, nickel and kick returner.
The sixth-year collegian was shifted to his current position in 2020, when he was a junior with the Wolf Pack.
With all those layers of multifaceted experience rolled into one, Henley has developed into an exemplary linebacker, a potential Pac-12 star entering his first and only season at WSU.
“I’ve always considered myself a great athlete,” he said . “Growing and playing so many positions, I’m versatile. I pride myself on being able to do a lot. I’m not a one-dimensional player.”
At spring camp, Henley is checking every box for WSU’s defense. He made a seamless transition to a new team, distinguishing himself quickly as a leader and one of the Cougars’ most skilled defenders.
The ideal linebacker qualities are there – the build (6-foot-1, 228 pounds) coupled with impressive agility. Henley is probably more well-rounded in his football knowledge and range of physical tools than the majority of his peers.
“It’s respect to each position I’ve played,” he said. “As a receiver, you’re learning where to sit in zones and you’re learning from different points on the field. Becoming a (DB), I had to learn coverages and where to be on the field. Coming to linebacker, I’m in the box now and reading guard pulls, tackle pulls. All of these things I’ve learned are different aspects of the game. I put those things together to know the game better.”
His background as a skill player and defensive back shows up on passing downs. He zips in front of intermediate throws for picks and deflections.
“I’ve been known to be great in coverage,” said Henley, who led all linebackers in the FBS last year with four interceptions – including a 50-yard return for touchdown – at Nevada.
In the ground game, he’s expecting to be a bruiser for the Cougars. Henley has the speed to track down ball carriers and can accelerate in a flash through gaps up front.
“Explosion, power and intensity – I’d say those words describe how I’m coming this year,” he said when asked about his hitting abilities. “Not only me, but I’ve seen it from my teammates. That’s how we’re all coming.”
Henley filled a need for WSU when he joined the program, picking the Cougars over multiple other power conference suitors.
He’s taking over for Jahad Woods, a Cougar mainstay at outside linebacker who started a program-record 56 games across the past five seasons.
Replacing Woods is no small task, but the Cougars have restocked with another veteran presence in Henley, who has appeared in 49 Division I games since 2017, including 21 starts as an outside linebacker over the past two years at Nevada in defensive coordinator Brian Ward’s system.
Not long before Henley signed with WSU, the Cougars hired Ward as their new DC/linebackers coach.
“We all know it’s a major support system having him here,” Henley said. “He’s like my backbone. He was my first linebackers coach. He taught me linebacker footwork, how to read the box. Knowing I’d have him again as my coach was a big influence for why I chose to come to Pullman, for sure.”
When Ward arrived in Reno ahead of the 2020 season, Henley was listed as a 6-1, 215-pound nickel on Nevada’s roster.
“At that point, they were like, ‘You can run with slots, chase down running backs, but you’re really big to be a nickel. How about you take it a step further and play linebacker?’” Henley recalled of his final position change.
In his first season as a linebacker, Henley finished third among Wolf Pack defenders with 49 tackles. As a senior in 2021, he made plays all around the field, piling up a team-high 103 tackles along with six sacks and three fumble recoveries.
“My first season at linebacker, it was like a culture shock,” he said. “When you’re not used to something, it just hits you. In my second season, everything slowed down. Third season, I can only expect it to be even slower.”
Cougars coaches have been impressed by his dedication to the mental side of the game.
“What people don’t see and what I get to see is behind the scenes how hard he works,” said Dickert, formerly the Cougars’ DC and LBs coach. “He’s in the film room, he’s asking questions. …There’s an inner drive that Daiyan has that I believe is going to allow him to play in the NFL for a long time.”
To reach this point, Henley rode out a whirlwind. Recruited as an “athlete” – an offensive utility player – out of Crenshaw High, Henley accepted a full-ride scholarship from Nevada over walk-on offers from hometown schools USC and UCLA.
Checking in at 185 pounds, Henley earned a spot in the Wolf Pack’s receiving rotation and caught three touchdowns as a true freshman. He doubled as a specialist, averaging 23 yards on 19 kick returns.
His responsibilities broadened as a sophomore. Henley played some receiver, took reps at “spur” – a nickel-type position – and returned five kicks.
“They saw that I could gain and hold weight and eventually we talked about defense, because I was the most physical receiver when it came to screens and blocking,” Henley said. “They were like, ‘How about you stop taking the hits and go deliver them?’ ”
He has retained the qualities of a skill player.
“Once you switch positions, it doesn’t go anywhere – the speed and athleticism is all there,” he said.
From youth football through his high-school career, Henley played QB primarily. He did well there, but “became more than a quarterback” in his senior year.
Roster turnover had left the Crenshaw Cougars short-handed at several spots. He filled in at safety, saw some action as a defensive end and played receiver for a couple of games. He was Crenshaw’s place-kicker, too.
“That senior year shaped my future,” Henley said. “(College recruiters) were like, ‘This guy was a quarterback, but he’s doing everything and good at it.’ That ultimately got me an offer as an athlete.”
Six years later, he’d grown into a total package at linebacker, and attracted widespread Power Five interest upon entering his name into the transfer portal in December.
He narrowed his options down to WSU, USC, Washington and Kansas State.
How did the Cougars manage to land the one-and-done impact player? The coaching connection with Ward and familiarity with the system certainly factored in, but Henley said it wasn’t the “be-all” behind his decision.
“I want to show that a lot of people underestimated me from the beginning,” he said. “That’s one of my impact statements: I was overlooked and I feel like I’m as good, if not better, than a lot of guys at this level. I’m here to prove that.”