Work in Sports
A tale of two Drews
Purdue's Brees, Michigan's Henson seeking glory
By Mark Ambrogi, Special to CNNSI.com
Remember the summer of 1998?
Back then, the only Drew receiving attention in the Big Ten was an incoming Michigan freshman quarterback who had just signed a big baseball contract with the New York Yankees.
But for the past two seasons, it's been all about his Purdue, now a senior and favorite in the Heisman Trophy chase, who's poised to break many of the Big Ten career passing records this season.
Drew Brees, barely recruited out of Austin, Texas four years ago, has in two seasons become the top star in the conference. Drew Henson, traded from the Yankees to the Cincinnati Reds this summer, has been the No. 2 quarterback in primarily a two-man system the past two seasons.
This year, it will be Henson's show to run in Ann Arbor. Who will be the big Drew now?
"Certainly the fact that he went into the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and we got him more snaps than that he's had in the past will help," Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr said of Henson. "The good news for Drew is he's been in a lot of big games. He's been in pressure situations. There's nothing he's going to experience that he hasn't been a part of. He's been in games on the road against Syracuse. He's fully prepared."
Carr said Henson has handled all the pressures of being a high-profile player.
"He's had some ups and downs, and through those ups and downs he's learned a lot," Carr said.
Henson said he has a different mentality this season.
"I am preparing to play against our opponents as opposed to preparing to battle for the starting job," he said. "As a starter, I need to become a more vocal leader and earn the confidence of my teammates as the starting quarterback. Having competed for the starting job the previous two seasons makes you appreciate actually earning the job like I have this year. It makes me what to work that much harder to make my final two years here as successful as possible."
Henson said whomever is quarterback at Michigan is going to face great expectations.
"Because of that I do not worry much about expectations," he said. "I know I don't have to put the weight of the whole team on my shoulders because there is so much talent around me and I just need to utilize the playmakers we have."
Brees said Henson should excel now that he no longer has to share the spot with departed senior Tom Brady.
"I think in his situation the fact that he's the man now is going to get him even more focused than he has been," he said. "He's always shared time. It's never been his team up to this point. Now it's his team."
Purdue coach Joe Tiller said the 6-1 Brees and the 6-4 Henson have different strengths.
"One thing about Drew Brees is we can't stretch him and make him 6-3 or 4, that will never happen," he said. "Henson is very athletic. He's strong-armed, but I don't know if he's any stronger-armed that Drew Brees is. As far as niftiness and the like, they're pretty comparable."
Like all Big Ten coaches, Indiana's Cam Cameron has praise for both. He said Henson has all the tools to be a Peyton Manning-type quarterback.
Henson completed 47 of 90 passes in his reserve role last season.
Brees threw for 39 touchdowns as a sophomore. Last year, that number shrunk to 25 TDs. Brees said he might have put too much emphasis on cutting his interceptions down from 20 in ?98 to 12 last season. "It was a goal of mine to cut down on interceptions," he said. "To do that, I felt I had to be a little more conservative. Maybe that wasn't the best alternative. When I'm at my best is when I'm playing reckless and thinking about making the big play every time. That's the way I like to play."
Tiller said the main way Brees can improve is game management. Brees said he can't try to make the big play every time. "Sometimes it's better to get a few yards closer, kick the field goal and take the three points," Brees said.
Tiller would also like to see Brees throw deep a little more often. But any critiques of Brees are minor. "This is my 14th year in this one-back spread attack offense and I think it's safe to say he's the most effective guy that we've had the pleasure of being around,'' Tiller said. Tiller scoffs at any talk that Brees' success is predicated on that system.
"I think he's the type of guy that would flourish in any system," he said. "He's a talented guy. He has exceptional skills and he has a lot of qualities we look for in a quarterback in the system. He's allowed us to be productive.
"But he'd be good in any system because he's so bright, so competitive and mature. If there was one word that would separate him from quarterbacks that we've dealt with in the past it's maturity." That maturity helps Brees deal with the never-ending Heisman hype of the past two seasons.
The affable Brees has learned to manage the many requests for his time.
"I think everyone realizes what the Heisman Trophy would mean to Purdue to have it as the team," he said. "It's not like I'm going out there to win the Heisman. Teams win Heismans. Although individuals are the ones that win it, you Can't do it without your team. It might become a goal of ours. That's going to get more attention to us. Everyone enjoys the attention to Purdue."
Henson enjoys the attention and feelings he receives from playing in front of 110,000 fans at Michigan.
"The experience you get at Michigan is definitely one of the reasons I came here and I did not just play baseball after high school," he said. "Even [if I play] major league baseball every day, there is no way I will experience the feeling I get on Saturdays at Michigan."
Mark Ambrogi covers the Big Ten for The Indianapolis Star. His CNNSI.com conference insider will appear weekly during the season.