How Michigan will compensate for loss of Nathan Brink, uncertainty of Will Heininger on defensive line
KENNER, La. — The Michigan football team broke for Christmas break after a light workout Friday. Most players made it home to celebrate with their families.
Starting defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen didn't have it so easy, though, after fellow starter Will Heininger went down with a right foot injury in practice on Thursday.
Coach Brady Hoke said Wednesday afternoon the senior won't be able to practice for "at least a few days," and his status is questionable for the matchup Tuesday against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl (8:30 p.m., ESPN).
That means Martin and Van Bergen, already the heavy lifters up front for Michigan, will have pronounced roles against Virginia Tech — both in leadership and snap counts.
"Coach said do some extra running over break," Martin said shortly after the team's arrival to a remote hangar of New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport. "We weren’t sitting down these past four days with our families. We were getting together, running and doing what we need to do.
"We’re feeling good physically and making sure we feel good for the game."
Joseph Tobianski | AnnArbor.com
Heininger's play was mostly quiet this year, but he was a steady producer, especially after moving from end to tackle after the win against Notre Dame. The Ann Arbor native started all 12 games and had 23 tackles, including four for loss, and one sack.
He has not been ruled out for the Sugar Bowl, but his status is in doubt. He was seen in the New Orleans airport on crutches and with a boot on his right ankle.
Brink, a sophomore walk-on from Holland who earned a surprising playing role with a strong fall camp, was a reserve who played in 11 games. He started once and had one tackle.
The injuries impact a position group that, although much better this year, remains relatively thin. That means Martin and Van Bergen might not get much of rest against the Hokies.
"(We have) two other seniors up front that are going to play their last college game and their last game for Michigan," Hoke said. "Sometimes, you’ve got to be an iron man."
Hoke said he also expects Will Campbell and Quinton Washington to play larger roles against Virginia Tech, and one might start if Heininger misses too much practice time.
Campbell, a junior, was ineffective for much of his Michigan career before playing a more sustained role this year. He appeared in 12 games, recording 11 tackles and two sacks. He also recovered a fumble.
Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said in an interview earlier this month that Campbell, a former five-star recruit from Detroit, has starter's potential if he improves his pad level and consistency.
"The biggest thing he’s going to have to bring is to do that on every down," Montgomery said. "There’s been weeks of practices where he’s done that consistently, and there’s been other times when he’s been given consistent opportunities, and he doesn’t."
Washington has been mentioned throughout the postseason as a standout in bowl practices, and he is considered by coaches to be an important piece to next year's defensive line corps.
But he might be counted on a lot sooner than that — and in a BCS game on national TV, no less.
The sophomore had one tackle in eight games.
Montgomery said Washington is one of Michigan's strongest players, but that he needs to improve his hand placement and consistency to make the next step — something that may now be thrust upon him next week.
"There are days where it looks like he should be starting, and there are days when you can tell he’s inexperienced," Montgomery said.