Michigan Wolverines: Will Heininger

Over the next few weeks, WolverineNation will look at every position on the Michigan roster and give a depth chart analysis of each position on the roster heading into the offseason.

Since Brady Hoke has taken over at Michigan, the strongside end has been a position of production for the Wolverines, from Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger in 2011 to Craig Roh last season. Now, though, the Wolverines will likely have a young, inexperienced player manning the spot for the first time in a few seasons.

Who that is will be up for debate.

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Brady HokeRobin Alam/Icon SMIBrady Hoke's drive to win the Big Ten title appears to be influencing his Michigan players.
Brady Hoke called Michigan's 2011 season a failure -- never mind the 11 wins and the Sugar Bowl championship -- because it did not result in a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance.

When national titles are brought up around Hoke, he typically shifts the focus back to the Big Ten race.

Whether Hoke's singular focus excites you or disappoints you, it certainly rubs off on his players. Although they weren't happy about a 2-2 start to the season, they had no trouble turning the page to the Big Ten slate last week at Purdue. And if the Wolverines' performance in West Lafayette -- a 44-13 win -- is any indication, the Big Ten will bring out the best in them this fall.

"With the nonconference season, we had one of the toughest in the nation," Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan told ESPN.com, referring to games against No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Notre Dame. "We took those games very seriously, but the goal's always a Big Ten championship. There's a little more fire in this team.

"We're excited about it, and every game is a Big Ten championship game."

Stifling defense and powerful offensive line play sparked Michigan in 2011, and the Wolverines appear to be reclaiming both hallmarks for the 2012 conference campaign. After struggling in just about every area against Alabama and seeing continued problems against Air Force, Michigan took a big step on defense against Notre Dame and also received better play from the offensive line as the game in South Bend went on.

Although turnovers doomed the Wolverines against the Irish, they made progress in both areas at Purdue. Michigan held a Boilers team averaging 51 points on its home field to 13 points, 213 total yards and 56 rushing yards (2.2 yards per attempt). It also controlled the line of scrimmage from the onset, holding the ball for 12:11 of the first quarter and opening the game with the program's sixth-longest drive (8:48) since 1978, a methodical 78-yard march that required 17 plays and 19 players.

Michigan's defense has surrendered only 13 points in each of its past three games, and opponents' yardage totals have dropped (259 to 239 to 213). The unit seemed to turn the corner at the same time last season, when it blanked Minnesota 58-0 in Week 5, allowing only 177 total yards. The Wolverines held six of their next seven Big Ten foes to fewer than 335 yards.

"What you're seeing is the younger guys who have been in the program for a second year, you would expect them to play up to their talent level, and that's what's happening," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told ESPN.com. "Some of our talented young guys are starting to now become older, and play like older players."

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireMichigan LB Jake Ryan continued to wow his coaches with his performance against Purdue last Saturday.
Although Mattison and his staff installed a new scheme in 2011, they had the luxury of leaning on three senior defensive linemen -- Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger -- while working several young players into major roles. The difference this fall, according to Mattison: Seniors with a ton of starting experience are in short supply, so some of the unit's more seasoned players -- Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, Thomas Gordon -- are also young.

"We're getting a lot better communication," Mattison said. "... When you're young, at an early part of the season, you're just kind of fending for yourself. You're just trying to get yourself to play. And when you get a little older in the season, whether you're a sophomore or a senior, you start feeling more comfortable. Therefore, you can do the things that are expected of you, and that is to communicate and get everybody set.

"These are guys that are now starting to feel like veterans."

Hoke singled out the linebackers as the group that has made the most strides in recent weeks. Ryan, who started 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman, has been particularly noticeable. "You can feel him on the field," Hoke said.

Ryan recorded five tackles and a pass breakup against Notre Dame and followed it with six tackles, including two for loss and a sack, against Purdue.

"The sky's the limit for Jake," Mattison said. "He has God-given talent, and he also has showed that it's very, very important to him. He's become a very good student of the game."

After Week 3, Lewan challenged the offensive line to "play angry, play nasty." While the group isn't quite there, in Lewan's estimation, there has been progress.

Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per rush against a talented Purdue defensive front, which failed to record a sack or a quarterback hurry against Denard Robinson (235 rush yards, 105 pass yards). The Wolverines' rushing attempts also are on the rise, from 30 per game in the first two weeks to 46 per game the past three weeks.

"In the Notre Dame game, it was somewhat of a change," Lewan said. "We saw we can move the line of scrimmage. We found out we have the capability to do that. It really came together at Purdue, but we have to be a better team this week than we were last week. Every week from now on is championship week because our goal is the Big Ten championship."

Lewan, who will make his 21st consecutive start Saturday against Illinois, welcomes a leadership role on the line. He shares the responsibility with fifth-year senior guard Patrick Omameh and fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer, a first-year starter at center.

"[Offensive coordinator Al] Borges put pressure on us, so did Coach Hoke, but at the end of the day, we need to put pressure on ourselves also," Lewan said. "Coach Hoke talks about it all the time. There's a standard you play at Michigan. I can throw cliché lines at you and every program says the same thing over and over, but the fact is we have the tradition to back it up. There's a tradition at Michigan, and there's a way you play."

Especially in the Big Ten season. There are still areas to improve -- Michigan needs to spark running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (169 rushing yards, 3.3 yards per carry) and its pass rush (five sacks in as many games, 104th nationally) -- but the team's identity is taking shape.

"You don't want to say the games leading up to the Big Ten don't count," Mattison said, "but when you come to Michigan, you come to win a championship. Now, it's on the line. Every game is on the line."
Denard RobinsonSandra Dukes/US PresswireImproved focus from the offensive line helped Denard Robinson rush for 235 yards against Purdue.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The week heading into the Wolverines' matchup with Purdue was one of the most memorable for offensive coordinator Al Borges.

"We had our three best practices maybe since I've been here, but certainly this season," Borges said. "So much of that tone was set by [the offensive linemen]."

It was the O-line position group that was called out during halftime of the Notre Dame game and told the final two quarters would rest on its shoulders. In that matchup the group missed more than 20 assignments and came into the following two weeks with a renewed focus. And because of that focus, they brought Borges and the rest of the offense the three best practices this season, which led a surprising rout of the Boilermakers.

"I love linemen because they're realists," Borges said. "They know you're only as good as your last performance and they're going to have to work hard."

(Read full post)

Michigan spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
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Michigan

2011 overall record: 11-2

2011 conference record: 6-2 (2nd, Legends Division)

Returning starters

Offense: 6; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

QB Denard Robinson; RB Fitzgerald Toussaint; WR Roy Roundtree; WR Jeremy Gallon; LT Taylor Lewan; RT Michael Schofield; DE Craig Roh; LB Jake Ryan; LB Kenny Demens; LB Desmond Morgan; CB J.T. Floyd; CB Blake Countess; S Thomas Gordon; S Jordan Kovacs.

Key losses

WR Junior Hemingway; WR Darryl Stonum; WR/KR Martavious Odoms; TE Kevin Koger; C David Molk; RT Mark Huyge; DT Mike Martin; DE/DT Ryan Van Bergen; DT Will Heininger.

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Denard Robinson* (1,176 yards)

Passing: Denard Robinson* (2,173 yards)

Receiving: Junior Hemingway (699 yards)

Tackles: Kenny Demens* (94)

Sacks: Ryan Van Bergen (5.5)

Interceptions: Courtney Avery* and J.T. Floyd* (2)

Spring answers

1. Quarterback accuracy: Denard Robinson played one series in the public spring scrimmage, but coaches raved about his improved leadership, decision-making and accuracy throughout the spring. The latter two were major issues for Michigan last season. While it is unknown whether Robinson will truly be more accurate until Sept. 1 against Alabama -- Michigan closed all of its practices to the media this spring -- offensive coordinator Al Borges was very confident in Robinson’s potential for his senior season.

2. Cornerback has depth:
Two seasons ago, cornerback was the biggest question on Michigan’s team because of youth, inexperience and a lack of talent. That is no longer an issue. The Wolverines have as many as six players they could feel comfortable with come the fall, and that doesn’t include incoming freshman Terry Richardson (Detroit/Cass Tech), the highest-ranked player in Michigan's incoming signing class. Sophomore Blake Countess could turn into a star, and fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd is the most consistent corner the Wolverines have. They’ll be the likely starters.

3. A featured back is set: Borges made no hesitation: Redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint is going into the fall as his top tailback -- a marked change from what the Wolverines endured last spring and through the first half of last season. Toussaint rushed for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns last season, giving Michigan a dynamic dual running game with Robinson. With major questions at wide receiver and tight end, expect a lot of running from Toussaint and Robinson, especially early in the season.

Fall questions

1. Who is catching the ball: Michigan’s coaches spoke highly of Jeremy Gallon, Jerald Robinson and Roy Roundtree during the spring as their top three receivers, but Robinson has never caught a pass, Gallon has had one season of consistent productivity, and Roundtree saw his numbers plummet last season, where he had 19 catches for 355 yards. Tight end isn’t much better, as the position group has two career catches. Denard Robinson’s two best safety valves -- Junior Hemingway and Kevin Koger -- graduated so even if Denard Robinson is improved, he might need to hunt to find a reliable receiver option. Incoming freshman Devin Funchess (Farmington Hills, Mich./Harrison) could be an option at tight end.

2. Who is pressuring the quarterback: Michigan took its biggest hits on the defensive line, which saw three starters graduate -- Mike Martin was a third-round draft pick, Ryan Van Bergen signed a free agent contract and Will Heininger graduated -- and its fourth starter, Craig Roh, switch positions. Michigan insists it’ll be OK there. Will Campbell and converted end Jibreel Black will likely start inside, and either sophomore Brennen Beyer or sophomore Frank Clark will start at rush end. The success of Michigan’s defense last season relied on pressure the front four created. With an almost completely new group there, how they fare against opponents will be interesting to see.

3. Punting problems: Somewhere along the way last season, Will Hagerup lost his mojo, much like kicker Brendan Gibbons the year before. A strong-legged punter, Hagerup wasn’t connecting with the ball well and eventually lost his job to freshman Matt Wile. Now entering his junior year, Michigan hopes either Hagerup regains his form or Wile becomes more consistent. The Wolverines’ offense should be fairly prolific, but with a defense searching for pressure early on, it needs to be able to control field position with the punter.
The three-day NFL Draft came and went over the weekend with few surprises for Michigan players. Three players -- Mike Martin, David Molk and Junior Hemingway -- were drafted.

Many more were not.

The three players drafted equaled the 2010 NFL Draft, which had Brandon Graham go in the first round, Zoltan Mesko in the fifth round and Stevie Brown in the seventh.

In this year’s draft, Martin went to Tennessee in the third round, while Molk and Hemingway were selected in the seventh round by San Diego and Kansas City, respectively.

Hemingway, the last Michigan player taken, joins Steve Breaston as a wide receiver in Kansas City.

(Read full post)

Top 12 Prospect Countdown - No. 9 

April, 4, 2012
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There are roughly eight spots left in Michigan's 2013 class, and there are still a few needs to fill. Some of the top prospects in the nation are still considering Michigan, and it would be tough to turn away those kinds of recruits. So WolverineNation will rank the top 12 uncommitted prospects for Michigan based on need and want leading up to the spring game.

No. 9
[+] EnlargeBen Gedeon
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comWN readers believe Ben Gedeon is a prototype Big Ten linebacker.
Tom's pick: LB Ben Gedeon (Hudson, Ohio/Hudson)

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Michigan is seeing one of its best defensive tackles in recent memory, Mike Martin, graduate. It also watches Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger, who rotated between end and tackle throughout the season, leave.

So while the Wolverines have some depth returning at one defensive end slot, they have nothing at defensive tackle. And considering how much of Michigan's run defense and pass rush came out of what Martin was able to do on the line, it is the Wolverines' biggest issue entering the spring.

So what happens?

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WolverineNation Roundtable 

March, 1, 2012
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Craig RohAP Photo/Carlos OsorioSenior DE Craig Roh will be expected to anchor the defensive line in 2012.
WolverineNation staff writers Tom Van Haaren, Michael Rothstein and Chantel Jennings discuss three pertinent questions surrounding Michigan sports. Here are this week's questions:

1. We're about six weeks away from the football spring game, what part of the Wolverines' game do you think will surprise fans the most?

Tom VanHaaren: I think the defense is going to be better than people think. I know there are a lot of question marks with the defensive line, but with these coaches if there's any position group I'm comfortable with it's the defensive line.

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Loss Impact: DL Ryan Van Bergen 

February, 23, 2012
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Paired with our Exit Interview series, Loss Impact looks at departed seniors who were starters/major contributors during their time at Michigan.

Previous Loss Impact: C David Molk; DB Troy Woolfolk; OL Mark Huyge; DT Mike Martin; WR Martavious Odoms; TE Kevin Koger; DL Will Heininger

Ryan Van Bergen never considered going anywhere other than Michigan. He didn't really visit anywhere else. He didn't even mull it over all that much. When the Wolverines offered, Van Bergen was heading from the west side of Michigan to Ann Arbor.

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With our Exit Interviews series, WolverineNation will look at each starter/main rotation player and assess how much his loss will mean to Michigan next season.

Will Heininger started 12 of 13 games last season, yet another former Michigan walk-on turned defensive contributor.

He made 36 tackles in his career, 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks -- almost all in his final season at Michigan.

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WolverineNation Roundtable 

January, 19, 2012
1/19/12
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Thomas GordonAP Photo/Carlos OsorioDon't be surprised if Thomas Gordon gets pushed by incoming freshman Jarrod Wilson for the starting spot at free safety.
Welcome to the WolverineNation roundtable, where staffers Chantel Jennings, Michael Rothstein and Tom VanHaaren discuss pressing issues and topics surrounding the Michigan sports landscape.

1. Where will the biggest position battles happen for the Michigan football team next season?

TV: This is a good question, and I think it should be along the defensive line. With Will Heininger, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen leaving, there is plenty of opportunity for competition, mainly among Will Campbell, Quinton Washington, Richard Ash, Nathan Brink, and some of the other guys already on the roster.

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NEW ORLEANS -- Will Heininger might have played his last game at Michigan.

All week, the Michigan coaching staff held out hope the senior defensive lineman would be able to play in Tuesday's Allstate Sugar Bowl despite a foot injury.

Now, it looks like it isn't going to happen.

"Heininger probably won't be ready," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Sunday. "He's tried and it's just going to be a shame because he's played his senior year like a senior should and done a great job as a leader up front."

Heininger's absence likely means Will Campbell and Quinton Washington will see increased playing time next to defensive tackle Mike Martin. Heininger started all 12 games for Michigan this season, making 23 tackles and four tackles for loss, including one sack.

Campbell played in 12 games this season, making 11 tackles and two sacks. Washington played in eight games, making one tackle.

Hoke also said Thomas Gordon will likely start over Troy Woolfolk at free safety. and Will Hagerup beat out Matt Wile for punter. When asked what nudged Gordon, Michigan's third-leading tackler, over Woolfolk, Hoke said Gordon has been more consistent.
Michigan will be a little depleted on the defensive line for the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke told reporters during a news conference in New Orleans on Wednesday that starting defensive end Will Heininger is questionable for the matchup against Virginia Tech with an injured foot.

Heininger has started every game this season for Michigan, making 23 tackles with four tackles for loss, a sack and a pass breakup.

(Read full post)

Both Michigan coach Brady Hoke and Nebraska coach Bo Pelini finished up their 10 minutes of media chatter on the Big Ten conference call a few moments ago.

As always, here are the highlights in convenient bullet form:

  • Hoke on Denard Robinson adjusting to the new offensive scheme: "Well, I think he's gotten better every week within the offense." Then Hoke went on to say he's adjusted, led the team and paid attention to things in the passing game and with fakes.
  • Similarly, Hoke said offensive coordinator Al Borges has done a "tremendous" job understanding what Michigan has in Robinson and playing to his strengths. Relieving pressure from Robinson has been aided by the emergence of Fitzgerald Toussaint and offensive line play.

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Here a few quick notes from the Michigan football press conference Wednesday.

  • Michigan coach Brady Hoke said fifth-year senior defensive end Will Heininger played his game of the year against Michigan State. Hoke was impressed with how Heininger is playing lower and with more authority.
  • Each week, signs are posted around Schembechler Hall displaying that week's opponent. They usually read: "Beat Michigan State" or "Beat Minnesota," but this week they read: "Michigan Game Week." Hoke said it's because "every week it's about us. You've got an opponent to play ... but at the end of the day it's about us and how we prepare and how we practice." Hoke has used the signs at each of his coaching stops.

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