Matt Henningsen’s excitement for the 2020 football season never wavered, even as the likelihood of it happening ebbed and flowed.
Henningsen and the University of Wisconsin did get to play a truncated, conference only season last fall, and Henningsen was making his first start of his junior year when the Badgers traveled to Michigan in their second game of the season.
Henningsen — a defensive end from Menomonee Falls — suffered a torn bicep in the first half of that game, which ended his season and shifted his focus to the 2021 season.
“We had a pretty good idea,” Henningsen said when asked if he knew the night of his injury that it was serious. “You can kind of see when you have a bicep tear or any muscle tear, you can kind of see how it looks. It just doesn't look right. … I kept my spirits up in the game, but I mean it was tough ending the season like that, such a freak injury happening.”
He had to get surgery three days after that game to repair the muscle, but Henningsen is back on the field participating fully in spring practices less than five months after the injury occurred.
He told reporters during a Zoom call Monday that he was back in UW’s weight room doing leg workouts and running about three weeks after his surgery. He got back to weightlifting after less than three months of physical therapy and was able to hit personal bests in his weight training this winter.
“Anytime you have, especially a fairly significant injury, your attitude and your approach in your rehab sets the groundwork in stage for your return to play,” Badgers defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej said. “Your investment through that process, staying connected, staying in the fold mentally and then continuing to progress physically. So really hats off to him because he had a great winter. Strength and conditioning put himself physically in position to step right into spring ball Day 1 and not miss a beat.”
UW is asking the now healthy Henningsen to fill a number of roles in the defensive line group.
Henningsen first and foremost will be slotting into a full-time starting role after two years of rotating with Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand at the defensive end spots. Henningsen is the most experienced defensive lineman UW has with 29 games played. The Badgers will need him to add to the five sacks and 7½ tackles for loss he’s tallied in his career, and there’s confidence he can do that with additional snaps.
“He's a genius academically and he's a freak show athletically. So he's right at, or maybe exceeding, where we hoped he'd be at this time,” Kolodziej said.
UW also will need Henningsen to bring along a group of young defensive linemen — players like early enrollee Mike Jarvis and redshirt freshmen Cade McDonald and James Thompson Jr. — to build depth at the position. Kolodziej said he already has seen Henningsen working with Jarvis, a three-star recruit out of Medford, New Jersey, throughout the winter session.
Henningsen’s experience on the field isn’t the only reason he’s looked to for advice. He’s a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree who carried a 4.0 grade-point average through his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. He’s now enrolled in UW’s graduate school in the same field.
Junior nose tackle Keeanu Benton’s eyes got wide when asked about Henningsen’s smarts on the football field.
“I wish I had his brain on my shoulders, let's say that,” Benton said. “He is the smart guy. In my position, anybody really on a defense, you come ask him what they're doing and he can probably tell you because his mind is filled with knowledge. That's a great person to learn from.”
Junior defensive end Isaiah Mullens said that Henningsen acted as a big brother to him when he arrived on campus.
“As we got to know each other, he was kind of the guy to really show me the way with the playbook and what I’ve got to do to be a better player and give my best on the field,” Mullens said.
Henningsen’s feedback also has been valuable for Kolodziej, who’s in his first year as the position coach after six years as UW’s strength and conditioning coach.
“I know I could go to him and get reliable information in terms of, what, how, why things were the way they were,” Kolodziej said. “He's encyclopedic and photographic with his memory and recall. So (he’s) a great resource for all of us.”
Henningsen takes his role as a leader seriously, saying he’s had good examples in the position group before him like Alec James, Chikwe Obasih, Olive Sagapolu and Conor Sheehy. Loudermilk and Rand also were influences, he said. He intends to show the younger players all he can while helping the group build good camaraderie.
That process will play out over the next three weeks of spring practices and throughout the summer months. But Henningsen for now is relishing another chance to play.
“I'm loving practicing,” he said. “I'm loving everything I'm doing with the group.”
Five things to watch on Wisconsin's defense during spring practice
Five things to watch on Wisconsin's defense as spring football starts
The Badgers must find a new top unit at the defensive end spots after two years of productive play from Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand. Loudermilk is making a run at the NFL while Rand stepped away from football due to injuries.
Junior Matt Henningsen, who missed five games last season after tearing his bicep, and sophomore Isaiah Mullens are the most experienced players in the group and can serve as the starters, but building the talent behind them will be crucial this spring.
Freshmen Cade McDonald and James Thompson Jr. played in two games apiece last season, but Thompson suffered a season-ending right leg injury against Michigan and his availability for spring practices is unlikely. Two names to watch are freshmen early enrollees Mike Jarvis and TJ Bollers. Jarvis is the only true defensive line recruit in the 2021 class and Bollers, a touted four-star prospect, is someone defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard believes can play an “outside linebacker-plus” role, potentially playing along the line at some point.
The Badgers have been churning out pro-ready outside linebackers in recent years, with players like Zack Baun, Vince Biegel, Andrew Van Ginkel, Leon Jacobs and T.J. Watt becoming NFL starters. The current group of outside backers has high-level talent but didn’t have the most productive season in 2020. UW had 11 sacks last season, with four coming from its outside linebackers.
Both starters return in senior Noah Burks and freshman Nick Herbig, and key rotation players like C.J. Goetz, Spencer Lytle and Marty Strey also are back. This group could be defined by the development of freshmen Kaden Johnson and Aaron Witt. Johnson was a four-star recruit and saw action in three games last season, while Witt played in five games and tallied a strip sack in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl win over Wake Forest.
Bollers again is a player to watch in this group, as is junior Izayah Green-May. It’s been a difficult pair of seasons for Green-May, with a thumb injury derailing him in 2019 and a right-arm injury limiting him to one game in 2020.
When inside linebacker Jack Sanborn announced his return for another year at UW, it gave the Badgers one of the best tandems of linebackers in the Big Ten for another season. Sanborn (52) and Chenal (46) led the Badgers in tackles and Chenal (three sacks, seven hurries) was the most productive pass-rusher on the team.
Senior Mike Maskalunas will play his final year at UW this fall after serving as the backup at both inside linebacker spots last season. This spring could be a showcase for young players in this group like Tate Grass, Maema Njongmeta, Malik Reed and Jordan Turner to push for roles.
It’s difficult to earn snaps on defense behind a duo like Chenal and Sanborn because they rarely leave the field, but Grass proved to be a valued special teamer last season, playing in all seven games. Ensuring this crew is ready if Chenal or Sanborn were to suffer an injury is pivotal to ensure the defense doesn’t come unglued without one of its stars.
The only vacated starting role in the Badgers’ defense without a proven replacement is safety. Eric Burrell played in 48 games and made 26 starts over four seasons at UW, but the Badgers need to find his replacement this spring as he makes his way to the pros.
There are options for the spot in players like Titus Toler and John Torchio, who have seen time over the past two seasons. Leonhard could opt for Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder to man both safety spots after the two rotated at one last season.
Impressing this spring could help a player get his foot in the door of the starting lineup before a pair of four-star freshmen arriving this fall — Braelon Allen and Hunter Wohler — make the competition at safety even tougher.
UW cornerbacks were short on highlights in 2020. None of the team’s seven interceptions came from corners, they were beat for big plays on multiple occasions in rivalry games at Northwestern and Iowa, and they didn’t take the step forward one would expect from a group that had between six and seven players with significant playing time under their belts.
New cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat inherits a room with multiple starters back, including Faion Hicks and Casear Williams, and young players needing to become more consistent like Donte Burton, Deron Harrell and Semar Melvin.
One position in this group that is of key importance this spring is the nickel back, or slot corner. Hicks filled that role most of last season, and he could once again, but UW needs to have more options to move inside other than one of its better outside corners. Or UW can feel more comfortable having Hicks move to the slot in sub packages if one of the younger corners can improve on the outside this spring.
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