Willie Henry’s “Big Earl” nickname does not seem as apropos as it once did.
The Ravens defensive tackle has shed almost 20 pounds since last season and no longer has the belly he hated seeing in photos. Listed at 6 feet 3 and 291 pounds, Henry declared that he is in the best shape of his career.
“And I feel lighter, too,” he said recently at the team’s headquarters in Owings Mills. “So I feel quicker. I feel stronger and more explosive. So give credit where credit is due, to the guys in the weight room that I’ve been training with to get me feeling the way I’m feeling now.”
Henry’s new svelte look has caught the attention of teammates and coaches.
“If you look at him now, his body composition is way different,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “The way he sees the field is different. The way he sees plays, he’s diving in more to the playbook. He’s a game caller for us. He’s one of those guys we look for. He’s actually coming up as a leader now. He’s doing a great job. He’s getting into the playbook. He’s working on his body composition. He’s changed completely. I can’t wait to see Willie Henry this year.”
Said defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale: “I noticed the weight loss when he came back for [organized team activities]. He’s really backed up the weight. It’s just that [strength and conditioning coach] Steve [Saunders] and those guys have done a great job of lowering his body fat and things like that. So he’s moving around. But it’s really the same weight. It’s just that he’s done a nice job this offseason of getting bigger, faster and stronger.”
Listed at 308 pounds heading into the team’s regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 31, Henry said he actually lost nearly 20 pounds toward the end of the season. The 24-year-old regained some of the weight in the offseason, but shed the extra baggage through a strenuous conditioning program overseen by Ben Herbert — the football team’s strength and conditioning coach for Henry’s alma mater, the University of Michigan — and a diet regimen that cut out what he called “bad food.”
“So what I did was I got serious,” Henry said. “I was serious before, but me and Carl Davis, we just attacked the offseason. We had a great offseason here during OTAs, and we just continued to build on what we had built here. We went up to Michigan and I got right with my guys up there at the university with Coach Herb and those guys. So it was just dedication to come back out here in the best shape possible.”
After taking what amounted to a redshirt year in 2016 when he was the organization’s fourth of five fourth-round draft picks, Henry finished with 33 tackles, 3½ sacks, five passes defended and two fumble recoveries last season. Exceeding those numbers is the objective for the upcoming season.
“Getting the reps that I got definitely set the foundation, and the only thing with that is building on that foundation and making it stronger and building on top of it,” he said. “I want to do more great things — whether that’s making more tackles, more tackles for loss, more sacks. I’m just expecting everything to be up from last year.”
As healthy as the weight loss, it might also affect Henry’s ability to contribute to the run defense. But Henry dismissed that notion.
“I feel like stopping the run is also a mentality,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s bone-on-bone and man-on-man type of stuff. It’s about being aggressive and wanting it more than the offensive lineman wants to move you out of the way. I’ve still got that same mindset. I finished the season at 295. So the weight is still there. It just looks better on me. It’s going to fool you a little bit. You might say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t look as strong.’ But don’t be fooled. The weight is still there.”
Defensive line coach Joe Cullen said the weight loss has not reduced Henry’s effectiveness against the run in practices.
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“He always had the flashes of really being good in his rush game, but he’s really playing the run better,” Cullen said. “I knew he was going to help us in pass rush, which he did last year. But he’s really striking better and playing with better pad level, and his overall game has improved — run and pass.”
Henry does not have certain numbers in tackles or sacks that he’s aiming for this season, but he said his success from a year ago has set a baseline.
“Expectations are high,” he said. “The No. 1 thing is to do my job and make sure that this team wins. My job is to make sure that we don’t have any mental errors on my end. Something that [right guard] Marshal Yanda always harps on is doing your job. So mastering my job is key first. I want to make sure that I know what I’m doing, and at the end of the day, when it’s third down, I want to get to the quarterback.”
So can Henry still be called “Big Earl” after the weight loss?
“Oh, he’s still ‘Big Earl.’ To be big is up here,” Williams said, pointing to his head. “You can be as big or small as you want to. It just depends on if you believe it or not.”
Henry said someone tried to call him “Big Slim,” but that nickname belongs to Davis, one of his closest friends on the team. Henry said he is fine with his original moniker.
“No, I’m still ‘Big Earl,’ ” he said. “That’s not going anywhere. I’m still going to be ‘Big Earl’ for a very long time.”