Walk-on quarterback Nolan Henry embraces holder role for Notre Dame

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

You didn’t miss the Twitter announcement from Nolan Henry that he plans to be back for a fifth season with Notre Dame’s football program.

That’s because he didn’t make one. He didn’t have a carefully designed graphic made to share the news. And let’s be honest, you probably weren’t looking for one either.

But Henry, a walk-on quarterback who was Notre Dame’s holder on place kicks for the final seven games of 2018, will be back for the Irish next season. He indicated as much in a post for family and friends on Facebook earlier this month. It’s the closest Henry has come to generating a headline since his time at Vancouver (Wash.) Union High School.

That’s where Henry won 33 games as a three-year starting quarterback. He set school records for career completions (365), single-season completion percentage (73.2), single-game touchdown passes (six), single-game passing yards (424) and more.

Henry was also named the national male winner of the 2014 Wendy’s High School Heisman for his work on the field, in the classroom and in his community.

But Henry’s career at Notre Dame has been considerably less heralded. It wasn’t until his senior season last fall that he finally found his way into a starting role, at holder. Even then, his work has gone mostly unnoticed, which is exactly what a holder wants.

The 6-foot, 202-pound Henry replaced Ian Book as the starting holder in the seventh game of the season, against Pittsburgh. The Irish coaching staff took the responsibility off Book’s plate after he cemented himself as the starting quarterback.

"It was kind of crazy,” Henry said in December. “When Ian became the starter, he had to take on a whole new role. Justin (Yoon) looked to me to kind of fill that in when it came to the Pitt game. It was really exciting to get on the field and have a role in that regard. I've loved every second of it.”

Holding was not something Henry had done in a game previously. He wasn’t a holder in high school. He only started practicing it as a sophomore on the scout team at Notre Dame.

“After that, it kind of fell in my lap, and I figured it out from there,” Henry said.

Henry had a sense last spring that he could be called upon to be the holder eventually. That’s when he started working with Yoon at times. Then it became a full-time job in the middle of the season.

"A lot of it was just getting the work in with Justin on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis,” Henry said. “Making sure he felt comfortable all the time. Those really were the big things. I held a lot for Justin in the spring, so we weren't unfamiliar with each other. It seemed to be pretty smooth with us."

Even though he had been successful with Book as his holder, Yoon knew it was only fair to both of them to find a new holder. Having someone like Henry, who could make it his sole focus, was a bonus.

“It's not easy to all of a sudden be like, 'Hey, now you're going in a game,’ ” Yoon said in December. “Especially not having played and going in for your first time. I'm very fortunate that he's very serious about it and takes the challenge every day.

“He's put the most focus on it out of anyone I've ever seen. He's always coming to me and asking about it. When do you want to work on it? That's really phenomenal. He's a go-getter."

Yoon made 10 of his 11 field-goal attempts with Henry as his holder after starting the season 7-of-10 with Book. The only missed field goal with Yoon and Henry came against Northwestern, on a 44-yard attempt.

Yoon did fail to convert on two extra-point attempts with Henry holding. Florida State blocked one of them. A week later, Henry mishandled a low snap from John Shannon on Yoon’s miss to the right against Syracuse. Yoon nailed the other 15 extra points with Henry.

The repetitiveness of catching the ball and placing it for Yoon became second nature for Henry.

"Just being consistent and trusting yourself every single time and not really thinking about it,” Henry said of the keys to the job.

There will be plenty of changes on Notre Dame’s special teams in 2019 with the departures of Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome, but the snapping and holding combination of Shannon and Henry should remain in place.

Not many walk-on players stick around for a fifth year. But with Henry finding a role last season, it was an easy decision.

"It's a great example for all of us walk-ons,” said Henry, who will graduate in May with a science-business major. “If you keep your head down and keep working hard, at some point an opportunity will come your way. Take advantage of it and enjoy it while you have it.”

Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon (right) kicks an extra point as Nolan Henry (17) holds the ball during the Notre Dame-Northwestern game at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.
Walk-on quarterback Nolan Henry throws a pass during Notre Dame football practice in the Loftus Sports Center on March 24, 2017.