At this point it’s safe to not underestimate Matt Henningsen.
When the former Wisconsin Badgers defensive lineman puts his mind to something, look out. Henningsen entered Wisconsin as a walk-on and he left as a potential NFL draft pick.
While Wisconsin has quite the walk-on tradition, there are no guarantees. Henningsen was one of four preferred walk-ons in his class. He and Josh Seltzner became starters and are looking to play professionally. The other two, Ethan Cesarz and Hunter Johnson, were both out of the program before the 2020 season.
Henningsen, who went to Menomonee Falls High school, had opportunities to go to college on scholarship elsewhere, but Wisconsin was always the place for him. Big Ten football, the engineering program – it all added up to be his destination. Scholarship or not, Henningsen also never doubted his ability or how things would work out.
“I knew that I was good enough to play. I was confident in myself to play football there,” he said. “There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be an impact player on that team. I went in with a lot of confidence, I went in with kind of a no-regrets mentality and take advantage of every single moment you have when you’re there and it ended up working out.”
It didn’t take long for Henningsen’s hard work to pay off. He started 10 games in 2018, becoming the first redshirt freshman walk-on to start a season opener in … well, at least 1990, which is as far back as Wisconsin's records go.
Put on scholarship later that season, he finished with 32 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and an interception. In 2019, he upped it to 5 TFL and four sacks. This past season, starting all 12 games, Henningsen had 6 TFL – the most by a Badgers defensive lineman since 2017 – and 3.5 sacks. He was named a consensus third-team All-Big Ten pick.
“When you talk about walk-ons, a lot of them don’t make it. A lot of them get cut, quit the team, get overwhelmed. It’s definitely a harder path for a walk-on than it is for a scholarship guy,” Henningsen said. “There’s no doubt about that but at the end of the day though, when you’re at Wisconsin you treat everyone the same, you give everyone a fair shot. I was able to earn a scholarship, earn a spot in the starting rotation. I’m sure glad I did it. I went to Wisconsin because I knew it was one of the top programs in the country and it was also one of the top schools in the country.”
On the academic side, Henningsen succeeded there, too – and then some. He had a 4.0 GPA as an undergraduate, getting a degree in electrical engineering, and, despite a rigorous football schedule on and off the field, finished an advance master’s degree program in machine learning and signal processing in just 12 months.
When he wasn’t working his brain, Henningsen was exercising his body.
An admitted “weight room junkie,” he came to Wisconsin power cleaning about 300 pounds and spot lifting at around 500 pounds. By the time he left he raised those numbers to 410 pounds and 675 points.
Tight end Jake Ferguson, who, like Henningsen, entered Wisconsin in 2017, said he’d watch Henningsen train and be in awe of what he saw.
“I saw him lift a crazy amount of weight, then he pulls up the weight and you look and there’s chains attached to it and that adds like 40 pounds,” Ferguson said. “You’re just like, c’mon dude. This is not normal.”
The chains, Henningsen said, he often used to help with speed and explosion as well as building triceps. He often used chains during the season on Sundays, which he earmarked as his squat day.
Yes, Sunday. Less than 24 hours after playing a game.
“That’s how I approach things,” Henningsen explained. “Doing as much as I can, whenever.”
All the work paid off on the field where Henningsen was a major part of the top rush defense in the nation in 2021.
Ferguson recounted trying to block Henningsen on “power,” a staple running play in the Badgers’ offense.
“Always when I’d line up in our offense (in practice) we’d have power and that means we’re running a combination from a defensive lineman up to a backer and any time I saw Henny I’m like, ‘oh god,’” Ferguson said. “I’d look at the tackle and be like, hey man, you’ve got to come back with some power and you’ve got to be low or we’re not going to win this rep. If it was a young guy he could kind of brush me off and you’d just lose the rep. But if it was an old guy, who kind of knew who Henny was, he’d be like, alright, it’s time to bow up. You’d still barely move the guy. Two grown men trying to move him and he’s hunkered down and he maybe takes one step to gather himself and you’re not moving him any further.”
It's not just the brains or the brute strength. Henningsen is an incredible athlete.
At Wisconsin’s Pro Day, he posted 7.02 seconds in the 3-cone drill. Among defensive tackles in the history of the NFL combine, only two had better times in that drill: Chris Hovan (6.85), who was a first-round pick in 2000, and Josh Shaw (7.01), a fifth rounder in 2002.
Henningsen said he’s “always loved jumping” – yes, at 6-foot-3 he can dunk – and he posted a 37 1/2-inch vertical at Pro Day. No interior lineman did better at the combine and only one has jumped higher at the combine – and that was in 1998.
“Everyone talks about his smarts, but no one talks about what a freak he is,” Ferguson said. “You’d think he’s a receiver looking at his numbers. Yeah, come on. The dude’s ridiculous.”
The academics, the lifting, the training – they all can seem like separate facets. But Henningsen said they all tie together when it comes to what matters most – playing the game.
“When I think about it, I apply a lot of the same things, when you think about work ethic, discipline, focus, time management, stuff like that. All of those are skills that apply not just in football and not just in school, but almost in everything,” Henningsen explained. “If you want to excel at something, if you want to be the best at something you have to make sure you put the time in, you have to make sure that you’re focused, managing time well. All that is crucial to all of this. I kind of learned how I learn best, and it helped me understand opposite team’s schemes on the football field, how other teams play, how other players play trying to scheme up and understanding what other teams are trying to do as well as understand our defense and what we’re trying to do better than a lot of the other players.”
The football part -- Henningsen knows that’s the most important thing teams are looking for. He thinks his versatility is an asset. Teams have mentioned playing him at nose tackle, defensive tackle and outside. At Wisconsin, Henningsen noted he played all over – form 0 technique all the way to a wide nine.
He admitted he liked playing in a 3-4 scheme and in the 3 technique, right over a guard. But he’s smart enough to not pigeonhole himself there.
“In that 3-4 scheme at Wisconsin I was pretty good at playing over the tackle, especially against the run,” Henningsen said. “I was good at making plays in that scheme. Honestly, I prefer being a guy that can play in all those positions. I can understand the defense where I can play multiple positions and be confident. I enjoy being that kind of guy.”
When you’re a former walk-on, you need to do things to stand out. The explosiveness Henningsen displayed at Pro Day is one. His intelligence is another. On the field, the versatility is a plus.
Add it all up and Henningsen feels he can bring a lot to a team.
“I’m trying to be the smartest guy on the team, that’s the toughest guy on team, that is versatile along the defensive front and the guy who can be destructive in the run game while also being able to push the pocket in pass rush,” he said. “That’s what a lot of guys look to be, but we all know what a good defensive lineman looks like in the NFL and that’s what I’m trying to get to. A guy that can play across the whole front and you can be confident in him, you can count on him to hold his gaps and get in the backfield to be disruptive in any way whenever he’s on the field.”
While Henningsen of course hopes he gets drafted, it’s also not necessarily a goal of his. Instead, he treats goals like building blocks – stacking one on top of the other, with no end in sight.
“The most important thing isn’t achieving the goal, it’s the journey getting there,” Henningsen said. “I’m not trying to think too much of specifics and where I’m going to go, if I’m going to be drafted, if I’m going to be picked up. You get too hung up on that you might feel like you failed or that you overachieved. I’m just staying in moment and doing everything I can right now to maximize everything. I’ve been talking to some teams and trying to get to know everybody in every conversation, but at the end of the day there’s a lot of unknowns. I’m only trying to control what I can control right now.”
Henningsen said he’s had discussions and workouts for several teams. He recently visited Green Bay and worked out with other former Wisconsin players at Lambeau Field – admittedly a cool moment for someone who grew up a Packers fan.
He’s also aware he doesn’t need football. After all, he does possess a master’s degree and a world in engineering awaits. But there’s a small, limited window in his other preferred profession.
“I love playing the game, at the end of the day I love everything about it. I want to play this game as long as I can because once it’s over, you can’t go back and play,” Henningsen said. “I don’t want to pass up an opportunity as big as this. I don’t want to discount how much I enjoyed engineering and my degree as well because that’s what I’ll probably be doing with the rest of my life after I’m done playing. This game doesn’t last forever, obviously, but it’s something I care about and what I do outside of football as well. Like I said, I love the game. This is my only chance, so I’m going to take it.”