Wisconsin’s defensive line has been on a journey over the past eight months. The position group had been the picture of consistency, with graduated seniors Chickwe Obasih, Connor Sheehy and Alec James each being a constant presence for the past four years. When last season ended, attention quickly turned to who would join Olive Sagapolu on the starting line for the 2018-2019 season. Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk seemed to be the likely next men up, but a season ending injury for Rand and knee surgery for Loudermilk opened up the competition for Wisconsin’s starting defensive end positions. In the spring it seemed that the positions would likely be won by two of Aaron Vopal, Kraig Howe, Keldric Preston and David Pfaffe. Now, Wisconsin’s week one starters for defensive end are a pair of redshirt freshmen who seemed to have come from out of nowhere. First is Kayden Lyles, the former four star offensive lineman who converted to defense this summer after Rand and Loudermilk were put on the shelf. Second is Matt Henningsen, a walk-on who hadn’t really caught any attention prior to fall camp. Though these two haven’t played a game yet in their college careers, we can get some idea of what to expect when they both hit the field on Saturdays.
Lyles isn’t your typical defensive end. At 6-3 and 323 pounds, Lyles originally seemed like a backup at the nose tackle position (for reference, last season James, Obasih, and Sheehy were listed as weighing 272, 275, and 293, respectively). Though the team will likely have him lose weight to better fit the position, Lyles’ size can still be a benefit. With Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense, the Badgers don’t necessarily need quick ends to rush the ball-handler. Lyles can fit well as a run stopper while also opening up holes for linebackers to attack the pocket.
It’s also important to remember that Lyles isn’t completely new to the defensive side of the ball. He did get a chance to play against opposing offenses in high school, as demonstrated by his sophomore Hudl highlight video (his defensive plays start at the four minute mark). There are only a handful of clips, but Lyles does show off some defensive instincts and possibly a nose for the ball. On one particular play, he is unable to push past his blocker, but manages to stay aware of the scrambling quarterback and takes him down before he gets too far.
Those early instincts are clearly still there. Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “on film he is getting better every day. He is getting more comfortable.”
Henningsen looks like a potential addition to the long line of Wisconsin walk-ons who developed into important starters for the Badgers. While he wasn’t a big name coming into Wisconsin, he had caught the attention of others. As a two star recruit, Henningsen received multiple scholarship offers, including from Northern Illinois and Buffalo,
Looking at his senior highlight video, it’s not hard to see why he got the interest. Henningsen played on both sides of the ball, and some positive attributes can be seen almost immediately. On the offensive line, Henningsen showed of some serious strength as he just bullied unfortunate defensive tackles and sometimes managed to get to the safeties with his blocking. On defense, he had two trends. First, Henningsen showed a knack of sliding off his blocker to take down ball carriers who tried to get past. Second, Henningsen showed quickness and a good motor on plays that didn’t have a ball carrier try to run past him. On multiple plays, Henningsen was able to close in and sack opposing quarterbacks. On others, he helped chase down running backs who had tried to get outside.
With both Lyles and Henningsen, it is important to remember that these highlights are against high school opponents. The B1G will feature bigger and stronger offensive lines than what they experienced prior to college. However, these two have already spent a year in the Wisconsin weight room, and are working with top notch coaches. Plus, every day they practice against one of the most formidable offensive lines in the country. By the time conference games start, Lyles and Henningsen should have a feel for the competition they’ll face. If they can keep improving, Wisconsin’s defensive line may go from a question mark to a strength.