MADISON — Matt Henningsen admitted during the spring that he received opportunities on the field that he wanted, but felt like he did not take advantage of them in the fashion he desired.
Working through those 15 practices in March and April, the redshirt freshman “dedicated everything to learning,” but that led to him “always thinking too much” and a self-perception that he was playing slow.
Now over a week into Wisconsin’s 2018 fall camp, a lot has changed from spring ball to the August grind as the walk-on from Menomonee Falls has pushed his way into first-team reps with the defensive line.
“The main way I took advantage of the spring was just learning everything, and then through the summer I was working on my technique a lot—my footwork, my hands, my physicality—and then coming into fall camp is when it completely switched for me,” Henningsen told B5Q on Friday. “I started to get my reps, my opportunities. [Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield] told me that I was going to get my chances. I’ve been getting a lot more physical. I stopped thinking, and hopefully we can ease into a rotation with our guys and figure something out from here.”
The offseason discussion about attrition at defensive end and subsequently who will step up to replace at least four players this season could be viewed as an nauseam topic. Gone are Chikwe Obasih, Conor Sheehy, and Alec James, who combined to play in 156 games during their time in Madison.
During the spring, Wisconsin bumped junior Garrett Rand out to end from nose tackle to pair alongside redshirt sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk to help fill the void as a starting defensive line alongside nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, Rand is ruled out for the year with what UW officially calls a right leg injury suffered during the summer. Loudermilk underwent surgery on his left knee, and his timetable for a return to game action remains cloudy.
That opened the door further for Henningsen and many inexperienced players at the position, who were likely fighting for rotational spots prior to the injuries, to step up further in contributing to a defense already replacing seven starters from a year ago.
During Wisconsin’s media day on Aug. 1, Breckterfield noted Henningsen “really did a good job during the spring, and he had a great summer.” As in the on-going legacy of Wisconsin’s walk-on tradition, Henningsen has started to seize the moment.
“Definitely just watching Matt kind of grow up since this offseason, he put in a lot of work into the weight room,” Sagapolu said on Friday. “I mean, he definitely hit some pretty big numbers out there, and so seeing that and kind of seeing his whole mental approach this year kind of gives a spark in everybody to kind of see him. Look, here he is, a redshirt freshman trying to just come out here and play.
Henningsen started fall camp with what could be described as the second-team defensive line alongside redshirt junior David Pfaff at end and true freshman nose tackle Bryson Williams. During Monday’s practice, however, he replaced Aaron Vopal on a line that included Sagapolu and recently-converted defensive lineman Kayden Lyles.
“Right now, he obviously deserves it,” redshirt senior inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said on Friday, himself having taken the road of a walk-on at Wisconsin. “Just him getting these reps are invaluable, I’d say. Sometimes you’ll have guys that are strong but they never know how to strike an o-lineman, or never know how to sit in there and take on a double, and so I’d say the biggest thing I’ve noticed is him starting to use his strength to his advantage.”
Coming out of high school, Henningsen claimed first-team all-state honors from the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) as both an offensive and defensive lineman during the 2016 season. An opposing assistant coach at a high school program in the Milwaukee metropolitan area mentioned recently that he “was a nightmare against us two years ago.”
Henningsen was rated a two-star recruit by 247Sports coming out of high school with Rivals reporting seven offers for the in-state product, two of which came from MAC programs Buffalo and Northern Illinois.
“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,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said on Monday. “There were a lot of programs that really liked him, ourselves included, so it doesn’t necessarily surprise us. Maybe it surprises you that he may have a role he’s going to in year two. Traditionally, this guy might get that role in year three, year four, year five. That’s a credit to the kid to put in the work, like I said, mentally and physically to give yourself a chance.”
Despite the opposing offers, some family ties and a highly-regarded engineering program called Henningsen to Madison when he verbally committed to the program in June 2016.
“I mean, I grew up a Badger fan, of course,” Henningsen said. “Grew up in Wisconsin, always been a Badger fan. My three older brothers all came through here, my parents came through here, but the main reason was the academics here at Wisconsin. I’m an engineering major, and I wanted to take advantage of everything I can get from a college experience. This is one of the best places in the nation for engineering, and I just hope to take advantage of that. That’s basically what separated Wisconsin from every other place.”
The 6’3, 277-pound Henningsen redshirted his freshman year while starting out at nose tackle. He moved to defensive end and adjusted to the 4i technique, where the player lines up on the inside eye of the offensive tackles.
“It’s pretty tough,” Henningsen said of the position. “Last year during fall, I didn’t know what I was doing really. I learned from the older guys but it was tough to catch on. I actually started out as a nose tackle last year, if you remember. Once I switched to 4i, I started figuring it out. It’s actually so much different from the nose tackle position, but once I started figuring out the techniques, the different blocks, the different steps, stuff like that, it’s grown on me, and I think I’m doing pretty well.”
Fast forwarding to the second week of 2018 fall camp, Henningsen has put himself in a solid position to receive first-team reps.
As Leonhard discussed earlier this week with reporters, Henningsen’s understanding of the defense has helped gain him those opportunities.
“He knows what he’s supposed to do, and going through last year, I think he took huge strides physically,” Leonhard said. “He got his body in a place where he’s going to put himself in a position to compete. That whole group has to continue to grow to impact the game like we need them to, but he’s put himself in that conversation of earning big-time reps in a big role this fall. It really just comes through consistency and putting in work.”