A perfect fit.
That was Kevin Kelley’s thought upon Hunter Henry signing with the Patriots in March. And Kelley, who coached Henry in high school, wasn’t just thinking about the packages Henry could be deployed in. Kelley was thinking the total picture.
“Hunter is the kind of guy that Boston reminds me of,” Kelley said last week. “What I mean by that is when I go up there, I think of blue-collar, hard-working people that are big-time sports fans. I mean, obviously it’s a sports town and that’s what I thought of. That’s what I think of Hunter. I mean, he’s a big name in the NFL, but he’s just a normal guy that’s a hard-working guy that just loves football and loves sports. And so, I thought he’s a perfect fit for up there. He really is.”
Kelley, whom Bill Belichick called “probably the best high school coach in the country” last year, also is probably the best person to judge perfect fits for Henry. When Kelley first encountered Henry, who had transferred to Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., he was a 6-foot-3-inch junior high offensive lineman. But not for long. Kelley promoted Henry to the varsity for the playoffs and he was a perfect fit as the starting left tackle.
Henry’s time protecting the quarterback’s blindside was short-lived, however. After watching Henry play basketball over the winter, Kelley’s plans changed.
“So, I saw how well he moved his feet and how he handled the ball and he’s really a good basketball player,” said Kelley, who started having visions of Henry as a perfect nightmare matchup receiver.
Over the next three seasons, Henry was a terror for Pulaski, a perennial powerhouse that won nine state titles under Kelley’s watch.
“We moved him everywhere. We moved him inside in the slot and on the outside. And he was too much for cornerbacks. He was really bigger than the safeties and the linebackers that guarded him too,” said Kelley. “And he was so good in space. You didn’t want to match up with him in man, but also, he was really good working against zones, like you see nowadays in the NFL.”
College coaches came calling in abundance and Kelley knew another position switch was likely in store for Henry, who had grown to 6-5 and 235 pounds. The concern some had was if Henry could play with his hand in the dirt after not playing from a three-point stance at Pulaski.
Kelley did not share those concerns.
“I just kept telling them, they could see how physically he was blocking defensive backs in open field … you can teach a guy a three-point stance,” he said.
Henry stayed close to home, enrolling at Arkansas, where he turned into one of the top tight ends in the land and subsequently was drafted by the Chargers in the second round in 2016.
Colleges weren’t the only ones watching Henry at Pulaski. Kelley’s innovative coaching methods and theories were gaining attention across the country. His strategies included going for it on most fourth downs, going for 2-point conversions, and frequently employing onside kicks — unless a game was out of hand. It translated into a ton of wins (219) over 18 seasons.
Belichick had followed the Pulaski program and met Kelley in 2015 when a mutual friend set up a chat following a Patriots victory over the Colts in Indianapolis.
It capped a big Indiana weekend for Kelley, who had been invited to South Bend earlier in the week.
“I was speaking to the analytics department of Notre Dame, of all things,” said Kelley, who also has spoken at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT.
Since that first meeting, which came moments after the Colts swinging gate catastrophe — “I knew that play would go down in infamy,’' Kelley said — the two have formed a bond.
“He’s been awesome to me, my family and really a good resource for coaching when I’ve got questions or problems or just say, ‘Hey, how would you handle that?’ “ said Kelley. “He’s been really good. And my wife and daughter just love him too, and my son. Like I said, he’s been great to us, and I’ve learned as much football from him in a short amount of time as I’ve learned the rest of my life, probably.’'
Kelley, who recently left Pulaski to take the head coaching job at Presbyterian College, keeps in regular contact with Henry as well and is excited to see how the tight end will be employed in New England. He did acknowledge he was a bit surprised when Belichick inked Henry to a three-year, $37.5 million contract.
“I really thought after they signed Jonnu Smith, I thought they might go after, one not as expensive, like I guess in the fantasy game a second-tier or a third-tier tight end. And that was just my thoughts, but what do I know?” said Kelley. “So yeah, it was a little bit surprising, just because of that, but then at the end, if you look back and see the success that the Patriots have had with tight ends, it made perfect sense. I mean, if you go two tights, and both of them are great in the passing game and the running game, it’s a nightmare for a lot of defenses.”
Henry showed flashes of what he can do during spring practices and minicamp, running crisp routes and making some nifty catches. The full Henry experience will come into view when the pads come on and he can flash the physicality he’s known for.
“He’s really excited … And I know he’s appreciated the professionalism and the attitudes of, and the work ethic that the Patriots have, in that program up there, in that organization. And he just expressed that he really appreciated that,” said Kelley. “So, I really think that they’re just going to love him up there. And obviously I think he’s going to produce on the field, but I do. I think he just fits right in with the whole monitor of what my ideology of Boston is.”
A perfect fit.