Updated: March 7, 2013 at 12:00 am
Clay Hendrix usually walks calmly through his football life as the quiet craftsman of the Air Force’s coaching staff, but a mistake has ignited the pilot light in his soul.
“You did nothing you were supposed to!” he shouts to lineman James Manuel, who has committed the sin of being out of position. “Nothing!”
During a chilly spring practice session at Falcon Stadium, Hendrix glares into Manuel’s eyes while delivering extremely specific instruction.
A few minutes later, Hendrix chuckles as he walks to his car in the twilight.
“Well, yeah,” Air Force’s offensive line coach says in the drawl of his native Georgia, “I am pretty particular when it comes to a lot of little things. When you’re at a lot of disadvantages, that’s how you compete. You’ve got to be great at the little things.”
Off the field, Hendrix is a gregarious man who enjoys talking about his two sons. A lifelong southerner before moving to the Springs in 2007, he laughs as he explains his struggles with this strange, life-altering substance known as snow.
On the field?
The smile vanishes. He’s a fanatic for detail who often complains when one of his players – and we’re talking literally here – stands two inches in the wrong direction.
Hendrix believes, fiercely, in exactness. During practice, he stares intently at his linemen.
He seldom shouts, seldom even speaks. He’s too lost in observation.
His attention to microscopic detail explains why the Falcons finished second in the nation last season in rushing. Air Force ball carriers, running behind an undersized line, gained 4,111 yards at a rate of 5.11 per carry and 316.23 per game.
“That is pretty amazing,” athletic director Hans Mueh says. “I think that’s a tribute to Clay. They’re consistently outweighed and outgunned by 50-60 pounds per player, but that doesn’t seem to bother them.”
Mueh is accurate on the weight differences. Last season, Air Force center Austin Hayes traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., where he stared into the angry eyes of Michigan nose guard Will Campbell, who sports a 6-foot-5, 308-pound frame.
Hayes weighs 245.
“When I’m soaking wet,” he says, laughing.
Hayes excelled against the gigantic Campbell as Air Force rushed for 290 yards. The line nearly carried the Falcons to a program-lifting upset.
This success comes from an attitude. Hendrix demands intense labor each day from his linemen. He preaches size fails to matter as much as preparation. Hendrix never yields in his demands. All he asks for is perfection, and he asks without apology.
And yet …
This ferocious coach can be vulnerable. After losses, the offensive linemen expect critical words from Hendrix.
But here’s the twist:
Those harsh words are often directed at a balding, drawling coach named Clay.
“I didn’t have y’all prepared,” Hendrix will say.
His humility creates fierce loyalty. The linemen do not want to hear their coach blaming himself. They see his meticulous, obsessive preparation. They know how much he cares about winning and about them. His dedication inspires his linemen to wisely attack the mega-men who stand in their way.
Hendrix, the Falcons associate head coach, has spent the past quarter-century crafting the skills of offensive linemen, and he has no plans to alter his career path. He says offensive linemen are seldom, in his words, “head cases.” Those who perform grunt work on the line, Hendrix says, are more concerned with team than self.
The current Air Force line did not arrive at the academy burdened by expectation.
“I doubt any of them had another Division I offer,” Hendrix says. “They’ve been told they’re not good enough or big enough.”
He enjoys working with humble linemen who yearn to prove themselves. An undersized line, which is by definition an Air Force line, will be a hungry collection of strivers.
The Falcons' offense looks at a hazy future. Halfback Cody Getz and quarterback Connor Dietz have exhausted their eligibility, and Hendrix must replace tackle Jason Kons, one of Air Force’s finest athletes of the past decade.
“That line has a long ways to go,” says coach Troy Calhoun. “but if anyone can get them together, Clay will. He’s as good at melding a group as anyone I’ve ever been around.”
Don’t worry. Hendrix is probably melding those linemen even as we speak.
Yes, Hendrix sometimes shouts at linemen who are doing nothing right. They don’t mind. They realize they work for a man on a tireless quest to make everything right.