Fifth-year senior Will Heininger learned a lot of lessons his freshman year. It must’ve been the teaching ability of Jake Long.
Heininger and fellow fifth-year senior Ryan Van Bergen drew the task of going up against Long as scout-team defensive linemen during his senior year. Long was 315 pounds and on his way to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. Heininger was 223 pounds and a walk-on, coming to the football team only after committing to play for the Michigan baseball team. Long did a lot of full-contact teaching.
“We still celebrate our, like, three wins of the season that we had against him,” Heininger said.
It was on those practice fields that Heininger truly learned the key to playing on the defensive line — staying low.
“If I was lower than him, I had a chance,” Heininger said. “He would play high, and I would play low for as strong as he was and as weak as I was, so it’s always about leverage and your hands.”
Now, Heininger is a starter on the No. 18 team in the nation. And, according to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, Heininger played his best game two weeks ago.
After recovering from a knee injury and not doing much on the stat sheet at the beginning of the season, Heininger made his mark in the Michigan State game, registering four tackles. Two of his three tackles for loss on the season came against the Spartans.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison cited Heininger’s biggest improvement in a main area. It’s the same one Long told him about four years ago, and his ability to stay low has translated to improvement in other areas of his game.
“I’ve seen him buy in to what we’re trying to do, and because of his confidence and the technique, it’s allowed him to use his strength, and he’s become a lot more physical a football player,” Mattison said. “I think when you’re not sure of yourself, you’re just trying to get through it, where now he sees it all.”
But Hoke wants more. To him, a single performance doesn’t mean much.
“That has to translate to him playing better this week and better next week,” Hoke said. “I think he’s playing with a little more authority, which you like to see out of a guy who’s a senior, but I was pleased with his performance.”
A lot more has changed from those days. Most notably, Heininger has a scholarship now. He’s also up to 295 pounds, up about 70 from his days on the scout team.
Heininger has shuffled along the defensive line in his career. After seeing playing time on both the inside and outside of the line, he started the season at defensive end. Van Bergen, Heininger’s old scout-team counterpart, slid inside to defensive tackle. After the Notre Dame game, the roles reversed.
With both Heininger and senior defensive tackle Mike Martin inside, the Wolverines’ interior defensive line has bloated to 599 pounds.
“We just felt that Ryan is a better five-technique (defensive end) than he is inside,” Mattison said. “He’s a lot more comfortable there … Will can kind of play anywhere, so that made it easy that way.”
When playing either position both players have are in a better state than they were on scout team. At least they don’t have to face Jake Long anymore.