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While many often praise the University of Wisconsin football team's walk-on program as one of the nation's best, plenty of its success stories surprise even the coaches who oversee it.

Matt Henningsen isn't one of them.

The redshirt freshman who chose to walk on for the Badgers over scholarship offers from Northern Illinois, Buffalo, Illinois State and other FBS schools could play a major role on UW's defensive line this season - something his coaches already envisioned when recruiting the Menomonee Falls native.

"I think we definitely saw a guy that, down the line, if he progressed the way you thought, was going to be a scholarship kid physically," UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "There were a lot of programs that really liked him, ourselves included."

Henningsen began taking first-team reps during the Badgers' fifth practice this fall, and he very well may stay there at least until projected starter Isaiahh Loudermilk returns from a knee injury.

Leonhard said the only surprise when it comes to Henningsen may be that he's pushing for a big role in just his second year on campus. Even during the recruiting process, though, Henningsen knew this opportunity may present itself.

Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield made sure Henningsen understood how wide-open his position would become after the departures of Chikwe Obasih, Conor Sheehy and Alec James, all of whom were seniors in 2017.

It was just up to Henningsen to capitalize on it.

"I knew I had to take advantage of my opportunities that I was going to get," Henningsen said. "I have my chance now."

Leonhard said Henningsen took "huge strides physically" last season, putting himself in a position to compete as a redshirt freshman.

Henningsen, however, feels he's currently making up for a lackluster spring - his first chance at moving up the depth chart without veteran players standing in the way.

According to Henningsen, his footwork was off this spring, his hands were poor and he simply wasn't physical enough. He spent the summer attempting to rectify his shortcomings and entered the fall with much more confidence in himself and UW's defense.

"Spring, I was thinking a lot," Henningsen said. "I didn't have a complete understanding of the defense, and I found myself thinking way too much. When you think, you play slow, you play just bad. So I'm just trying to let loose and let my preparation take over instead of thinking, and just go out and play."

It's working for him so far through the Badgers' first 10 camp practices.

Henningsen now seems a sure bet to play meaningful snaps when UW opens its season against Western Kentucky on Aug. 31 at Camp Randall Stadium, and he'll have four more seasons to continue growing from there.

"What's fun to see is it looks like he's playing confident," UW coach Paul Chryst said. "He's worked in the offseason, worked all last year. ... I think he's positioned himself to give himself a chance. That's all you can ask for from guys."

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Jason Galloway is the Wisconsin Badgers football beat writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.