Teammate Chawntez Moss called him a squirrel. Assistant coach Andre Powell called him an explosive guy. But one day, Quadree Henderson just wants to call himself Heisman.
That was the lofty career goal Pitt’s electric junior wide receiver evoked Saturday afternoon — fresh off a memorable performance in Pitt’s Blue-Gold spring game — when asked how he can build on last season’s consensus All-American status as a return man.
“I definitely want to be an All-American again,” Henderson said before entering his name into the conversation for college football’s most prestigious award. “I want to win the Heisman. But it’s all up to me just putting in the work, perfecting my craft, studying film.”
The first film he wants to look at is that of his 54-yard run Saturday, the one that served as the main highlight of his Gold team’s 23-14 win in the intrasquad scrimmage before a crowd of 7,076 at Heinz Field.
It was a reverse that he took up the right sideline, only to cut back inside all the while breaking free from any defender who neared his vicinity. Defensive lineman James Folston tried to get a hand on him, only to be juked right into the turf. Henderson finally ran out of gas at the 7.
“Wow,” coach Pat Narduzzi said afterward. “I didn’t know if it would end. I thought he was going to run right through the tunnel into the locker room and make everybody miss.”
Not quite a Forrest Gump moment, but no matter. By that point, Henderson already had a 30-yard touchdown run, the first of the game, on another one of the jet sweeps that helped make him a budding star last season. Henderson finished with 137 yards of offense — 84 on the two runs and 53 on five receptions.
While Henderson may have turned into the story of the day, he didn’t necessarily overshadow the most intriguing plot going into it.
Max Browne, a Southern California graduate transfer who picked Pitt with an eye on a starting job, made his first public showing as a Panther. He and his Blue offense started slow, going three-and-out on their first three drives, but eventually found some success through the air. Browne finished 13 of 28 for 144 yards and a touchdown.
“I felt like we started off just kind of bleh,” Browne said in an assessment of his performance. “Just kind of no one making a play, myself included. That slow start kind of got us, ultimately was probably why we lost the game. But some good drives at the end.”
Indeed, Browne found redshirt sophomore receiver Tre Tipton in the back of the end zone for a 27-yard score with 2:01 left, then hit Rafael Araujo-Lopes for a 2-point conversion to evade an entirely disappointing day.
His main competition under center, redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci, was unspectacular but efficient. He completed 5 of 5 attempts for 60 yards, given that the wisest decision on most possessions was to simply hand off to Henderson.
Browne and DiNucci played in red jerseys for their protection, while freshman reserves Thomas MacVittie and Kenny Pickett did not.
“The two of them have done a nice job,” Narduzzi said of Browne and DiNucci. “Obviously, one’s further along than the other, and I won’t tell you who.”
Elsewhere Saturday, Moss led all running backs with 57 yards on eight carries. Redshirt freshman kicker Alex Kessman, who will take over those duties from graduated Chris Blewitt, made 3 of 4 field-goal attempts, with his lone miss a 60-yard try at the end of the first half that “didn’t count” in Narduzzi’s eyes because of the distance.
About 100 former Pitt players came back to take in the action, which featured a jitterbug receiver running wild at times, but also had as much crispness as one might expect from a split-squad football game in April. Just call it a reminder of how far away September is.
“After a spring game, I think there’s always a feeling in your stomach that we’re not good enough,” Narduzzi said. “That’s obviously how I feel, because right now we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Brian Batko: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrianBatko.