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.”