Ed Philion used a number of words to describe the progress he has seen from Makana Henry over the past three CFL seasons.
Three of those words got the point across.
“Oh my Lord,” Philion, the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ defensive line coach, said when asked about Henry’s progression.
That pretty much summed it up. But Philion had more to say.
“He was really green when he first got here,” the veteran position coach said of the 31-year-old defensive tackle. “But the thing about Mak is he’s passionate, he cares, he’s a good leader and he works his ass off.
“Give me a guy who cares about it and who has a great work ethic and you can teach him anything. He has come a long way from when he first got here.”
Henry joined the Roughriders in August of 2016 and registered five tackles over six games that season.
The 6-foot-1, 275-pounder made the team in 2017 and played in 15 games, recording 26 tackles, three special-teams stops and one sack. In spot duty, he led the Roughriders’ interior defensive linemen in tackles.
He was a force during training camp this spring, regularly beating veteran offensive linemen in one-on-one drills before a sprained ankle slowed him down. Even so, it was evident that he had improved.
“It’s unbelievable; it’s night and day,” centre Dan Clark said. “He’s a guy you can trust to do his job and do it well.”
He has done it so well that he started at defensive tackle in Friday’s 27-19 victory over the Toronto Argonauts in the teams’ regular-season opener at Mosaic Stadium.
“When I first came in, I just had a bull rush and I tried to figure the rest out off of my bull rush,” Henry said. “I worked on some things and some different techniques, I trained and I’m a little bit sharper and quicker, so the moves are just coming fluidly.
“Really, it’s just trial and error. This off-season, it was just (tackling) dummies that I could work on my moves against. Now I’m just trying the things I learned and the things my coach told me to try. Then I add, add, add to whatever he told me and try to get better.”
Henry didn’t have any tackles in the contest, but he was in the Argos’ backfield a few times — all thanks to the lessons he has learned.
“Physically, I’ve always been strong, so that’s not really a problem,” Henry said. “But now I’m using my strength and I’m learning leverage, being more open to the field, reading things better, game situations and pre-snap reads.
“The game has become a lot easier now that I’m learning how to separate what is what, see how (the offence is) lining up and see what’s happening. I’ve just matured mentally.”
Henry played junior football, but his playing career was interrupted by a period of incarceration. He didn’t get back into the game until 2016, when a semi-pro team saw him playing flag football and invited him to join the roster.
The Roughriders subsequently called and gave Henry a chance to play in the CFL. Two-plus years later, he has developed into a productive member of the Roughriders’ defence.
When it was pointed out to Philion that it’s almost too bad that Henry is learning so much in his 30s instead of his 20s, the Roughriders’ D-line coach accentuated the positive.
“The good thing is, he’s a lot more mature physically, mentally and emotionally,” Philion said. “At 22 years old, he probably wouldn’t be able to make this football team. He probably wasn’t mature enough. But I think some of the lessons he has learned through life have made him grow as a person.
“He doesn’t have the miles on his body as a football player, either. He doesn’t have those college years of beating up on his body. Physically, he’s got a lot of miles left. In this game, if you work hard, you can play until you’re 34 or 35 as a defensive tackle. He’s still got about four or five more years if he continues to work at the same rate he’s doing right now.”
Henry also wasn’t interested in what-ifs.
“Things happen when they’re supposed to happen,” said Henry, the Roughriders’ nominee for the CFL’s Tom Pate Award in 2017 and the winner of the team’s community service award. “Maybe my timing wasn’t right back then; I might have come here and ended up being nothing.
“Life is like a good soup. You have to let it stew properly and that’s when it’s ready to go. You keep adding ingredients, add this and add that until it’s perfect. When it’s ready, things will fall into place.”
They appear to have done so for Henry, who has progressed to the point where he’s starting for a CFL team. He’ll get another opportunity to contribute Thursday, when the Roughriders are to visit the Ottawa Redblacks in the nation’s capital.
Henry admitted he’s proud of the work that he has done and of the recognition that he has received from his coaches and teammates. That said, he isn’t patting himself on the back for the progress he has made.
“It’s pro football; I’d better be able to do my job or else go home,” he said. “That’s my pat on the back. When they keep me on the team, I’m happy. I say, ‘OK, that’s all I needed.’ ”