Earlier this week, B5Q took a look at who stood out during the first two-plus weeks of fall camp from the offensive side of the ball.
Now, it’s only fair we take a look at defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit, one that is replacing over a handful of starters and some additional contributors. How Leonhard and the coaching staff reload three starters in the secondary, both first-team outside linebackers, and three starting-worthy defensive ends can be viewed as the biggest question facing this team heading into the season.
Some redshirt freshmen, a dynamic outside linebacker, among others showed a lot of potential early on during practices.
The first of the few second-year players that made the most of his opportunities, the Detroit native showed his playmaking ability with a few interceptions during those practices open to the media.
Leonhard mentioned back on Aug. 16 that Nelson was the one defensive back “that has flashed big play ability” and found the football. When asked who stood out on the defensive side of the ball this fall camp, fellow safety D’Cota Dixon mentioned the redshirt freshman’s name alongside cornerback Caesar Williams and inside linebackers Chris Orr and T.J. Edwards.
With not many in the defensive backfield being as consistent in hauling in those interceptions early on, the redshirt freshman could be a big factor in creating takeaways this season.
With Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk sidelined, the defensive end position needed players to step up. Fellow redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal worked with the first-team line for the first few practices and is likely to be a rotational player this season, but Henningsen—the walk-on from Menomonee Falls, Wis.—became one of the stories of fall camp in sliding into that first-team line alongside Olive Sagapolu and Kayden Lyles.
When asked on Monday who stood out on defense, left guard Michael Deiter praised the in-state product for his development from spring ball until now.
“He’s definitely worked himself into a position to be ready to start,” Deiter said. “That’s awesome because that’s a position where we needed it, so for him to really run out in front like that was awesome to see. That’s a guy I get to block all the time every day, and he’s definitely making me better which means he’s gotten a lot better, so that’s fun.”
Andrew Van Ginkel
We called out his spring performance in April, and we all know he can pass rush and make special things happen with a nearly uncanny ability to create turnovers.
During fall camp, I recall the outside linebacker making a few interceptions—including two during last Saturday’s scrimmage.
“‘Gink’s’ a ballhawk. ‘Gink’s’ always around there,” Nelson said on Monday.
Van Ginkel, now in his final year, really has the potential to be the biggest playmaker on this defense. This spring quote from quarterback Alex Hornibrook still rings true:
“He makes some plays that you don’t expect him to make, and he sniffs some screens out that you don’t expect him to do, some things like that. He’s a really good player, and you can tell out here when we’re practicing.”
He is a player I feel that is taken for granted but has stepped in where needed the past two seasons when injuries hit the inside linebacking group. This summer, he has looked extremely solid and really appeared to be locked in. Barring injuries or any unforeseen circumstances, expect him to be among the most consistent playmakers on the unit.
Caesar Williams/Faion Hicks
Both Nelson and Dixon noted Williams by name as standing out during the camp, though Nelson also praised all of the cornerbacks for competing and pushing themselves. Both received first-team reps during that final week open to reporters, and Leonhard mentioned on Aug. 16 that they had been the most consistent out of that position group. We will see if redshirt sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams assumes his presumed first-team status against Western Kentucky, but I thought both Williams and Hicks performed well.
The redshirt freshman has to be mentioned here, as the 323-pound lineman not only switched sides of the ball, but now appears to be among the first-team unit alongside Henningsen and Olive Sagapolu.