Colorado freshman cornerback Greg Henderson, above, has been on the field for more defensive plays this season than anyone except Ray Polk, Anthony Perkins
Colorado freshman cornerback Greg Henderson, above, has been on the field for more defensive plays this season than anyone except Ray Polk, Anthony Perkins or Jon Major. ( Jay LaPrete )

Greg Henderson could be preparing for Navy's vaunted option this week.

The Colorado freshman was military haircut-close to playing for Troy Calhoun at Air Force.

"My dad has a military background, and we really liked that school," Henderson said. "It was a real close decision. At Air Force, after football you're basically set for life with your career. But I think I made a great decision."

Instead of learning to pilot fighter aircraft at the Academy, Henderson plans to study business marketing in Boulder. The 5-11 cornerback from Corona, Calif., has already gone through a crash course in college football this semester.

Henderson has started all four games at right cornerback for the Buffs. He is only the second true freshman at CU to open a season as a starting cornerback, joining Victor Scott (1980) on the short list.

Due to a slew of injuries at the position, there will be a lot of pressure on Henderson's shoulder pads this Saturday as CU makes its Pac-12 debut against Washington State at Folsom Field.

"I tell him, 'When you're a freshman, every week you go out there with a target on you,' " CU head coach Jon Embree said. "(Ohio State) got him last week. Obviously, you're going to have some plays where they're going to make plays on you. He has been very good. And with (Washington State) being a four-wide attack, everybody back there is a target."


The secondary figures to be tested early and often by the Cougars, who enter the game ranked fourth nationally in passing offense (380.0 ypg) and fifth in scoring offense (49.0 ppg).

Washington State's dynamic go-to wide receiver, Marquess Wilson, leads the country in receiving (143.0 ypg) and already has four touchdowns. Senior quarterback Marshall Lobbestael is completing 62.4 percent of his passes and has already thrown for 959 yards and 10 touchdowns since replacing injured starter Jeff Tuel in the opener.

"Stats don't lie," CU defensive coordinator Greg Brown said. "They are tough to contend with. They have some speed, they have some size, they have some ability, and they have a nice scheme. ... That's a pretty loud statement where they rank nationally. That's lights out good."

CU's other starting cornerbacks, Travis Sandersfeld (left) and Parker Orms (left/nickel), are not expected to play Saturday due to leg injuries. Backups Vince Ewing (knee) is still a week or two away from returning, and Jared Bell (knee) was lost for the season in August.

The situation so bleak that it inspired Brian Lockridge, a senior running back without a carry this season, to try and learn cornerback this week hoping to see some game-day action. Brown joked that the Buffs were going to petition the NCAA to use 13 defensive players so they can deal with Washington State's skill players this week.

"I think it limits you. I don't think it gets you out of things. I think it limits you," Embree said of the lack of healthy bodies available in the secondary. "You have to find ways to protect guys and keep exposure at a minimum. You may not be able to be as aggressive as you want or as you'd like to be."

Despite the attrition, CU's pass defense is only yielding 183.5 passing yards per game, which leads the Pac-12.

Lockridge has been staying late at practice to learn some pass coverage techniques, but Henderson is usually the last player to leave the field as he continues to work on being more physical at the line of scrimmage and playing the ball better when it's in the air.

"He's a good player. I think he's going to be a great corner here," senior free safety Ray Polk said of Henderson. "As a freshman does, he makes mistakes now and again. You just have to keep their heads up. Everybody's going to do that, but the best thing about mistakes is you're going to learn from them if you choose to."

Only Polk (249), senior strong safety Anthony Perkins (249) and junior linebacker Jon Major (224) have been on the field for more defensive plays in 2011 than Henderson (220).

"They basically teach me everything. I really kind of look back every play, and they tell me what I'm doing just to be double sure," Henderson said of Polk and Perkins. "I learn a lot from them. They know this defense just like coach Brown, so it's like having him on the field, too."

Henderson emerged early from the large group of cornerback candidates that started fall camp. After four weeks of tough luck at a position that is so vital in the pass-happy Pac-12, the coaching staff feels even better about Henderson's decision to play at CU.

"One of the things that appealed to us, besides his athletic ability, is that he is an outstanding person and a class act," Brown said. "He takes care of business off the field. He comes from a good family, and we're thrilled to have him."