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Posted on Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Position change leads to improved play from Will Heininger, better production from Michigan's defensive line

By Kyle Meinke


Michigan defensive end Will Heininger (39) celebrates after tackling Northwestern's Adonis Smith during the Wolverines' 42-24 win on Oct. 8.

AP Photo

Will Heininger was supposed to play baseball at Michigan.

The Ann Arbor native was a standout pitcher and outfielder at Pioneer High School, and he was slated to play for the Wolverines upon his arrival in college.

But as fall approached, Heininger decided to switch his commitment and walk on to the Michigan football program as a defensive lineman — despite weighing just 220 pounds.

How was he received? With an assignment to match up every day in practice with Jake Long, a 317-pound All-American offensive tackle and future No. 1 NFL draft pick.

Did he ever stand a chance?

"(Fellow freshman Ryan Van Bergen and I) still celebrate our, like, three wins of the season that we had against him," Heininger said Tuesday after practice. "But, that's where I learned leverage, that year playing on scout team against him every day. … Even when you get stronger, you remind yourself to stay low."


Come back to at noon Thursday for a live chat with Kyle Meinke. He'll discuss news that emerged during Michigan’s off week and preview the game against Purdue on Saturday.
Heininger has turned those lessons into an unlikely success story as No. 17 Michigan (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) prepares to face Purdue (4-3, 2-1) at noon Saturday on ESPN2.

He played exclusively on special teams as a freshman. As a sophomore, he started to crack the rotation, recording 10 tackles in seven appearances as a reserve on the defensive line.

But just as he was expected to play an expanded role as a junior, Heininger tore his ACL. He played just three games last year, recording three tackles.

This year, though, Heininger has come back healthy, continued to put on weight -- he's at 295 pounds -- and fine-tuned his fundamentals. In return, he is a regular contributor on Michigan's resurgent defense.

Heininger has started each of Michigan's seven games this year and recorded 14 tackles, a career high. He had a career-high four tackles in Michigan's last game against Michigan State and was one of only two players to be mentioned by coach Brady Hoke as guys who played well in the 28-14 loss.

"It's all been technique, as far as I'm concerned," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said this week. "He's always been a big, strong guy ... but I've seen him buy into what we're trying to do and, because of his confidence in his technique, it's allowed him to use his strength to become a much better football player."


Will Heininger

Heininger hasn't always played great, but he's been consistently good in recent weeks since making a position change.

He began the year slotted at the weak-side defensive end position, where he split time with walk-on Nathan Brink. After the Notre Dame game in Week 2, though, he was moved inside and Van Bergen slid outside.

It's a win-win for everyone, as Heininger is versatile enough to play inside and Van Bergen is more comfortable outside.

"I've played there in the past, so it's pretty much the same," Heininger said. "Defensive line is reading your key, getting off blocks, using your hands. It's not too big a difference."

The move has worked out well for the Wolverines, who have undergone a defensive renaissance this season. They are allowing just 14.7 points (eighth nationally) and 336.0 yards per game a year after yielding 35.2 points and 450.8 yards per game last year. Improved play from the defensive line has been a big part of that.

Heininger credits the rapid improvement up front to better coaching. He said the biggest difference is the linemen are being taught "tips," which are clues that help a defender anticipate an offensive lineman's move.

One thing that has helped Heininger is a lesson he learned from those beatings suffered at the hands of Long: Stay low.

"If I was lower than him, I had a chance, and he even told me that," Heininger said. "For as strong as he was and as weak as I was, it's always about leverage and your hands."

That used to be a challenge for Heininger, who stands 6-foot-6. Now, though, Mattison said staying low has been Heininger's greatest improvement this year.

"They've got to be able to punch," Mattison said. "He's starting to do that now."

Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.



Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:15 p.m.

Thank you Coach Mattison in putting Will Heininger in a position where he can utilize his skills. Keep up the good work to Will and Coach Mattison. The Meechigan defense should be able to remain consistent for the remainder of the season. They will enable the team to stay in the game so it will be up to offense to improve and then remain consistent. That is the key to winning more games the rest of this season.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 1:47 p.m.

Thanks for the analysis on Heininger. Always like those guys who play despite the odds against them. I admire them as much as anyone. And these are the guys who never complain about being exploited, despite paying their own way (at least initially). After listening to Spielman's during the MSU game, it seems the tackling for UM is not up to par for the most part. Anyone know why he is not coaching? Spielman, to me at least, would make the best coach. He loves the game, loves the kids, knows fundamental football better than anybody, and has spirit. If I were coaching at OSU or at UM, I'd go after him with everything I have to get him on the staff.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:50 p.m.

Spielman interviewed for the osu HC job (that Tressel got) and obviously was turned away. He said it was his dream job. Wonder if he'll try again at the end of this season?


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:08 p.m.

Don't know if you'd ever get Spielman to put on an M hat and coach at Michigan.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 1:33 p.m.

The amazing turn around is that D1 talent is getting NFL coaching on how to play defense. Guys who are juniors or seniors received almost no coaching from 08'-10' seasons. This basically meant every man was for himself and thats why the team was so bad defensively. As Mattison says, "this team is not good enough to have just one guy trying to tackle, every one has to". I take that as there is no play maker or difference maker on this D. We thought as fans it could be Martin be he has really looked mediocre this year (as a play maker or star) and just looks like another run of the mill guy that is solid but nothing special. I think Countess will end up being that guy next year and his junior year and if you get a LB or DL player like that as well look out. The LB's I think are still very poor at michigan right now. Once again no fault of their own because they simply were not coached properly so they are stuck in senior highschool mode of jumping plays and holes and getting burnt to the outside every single time. They are under sized and slow as well but starting to learn how to play the position better. The DB's are probably the best position out there but still have horrible habits from the previous coaching staff. These include diving at the ball carriers knees with their head and not making proper tackles, to covering grass and not a player in zone coverage (why are there 3 guys in a 3 deep zone not covering the guy in that zone? but covering space around him!) The best stories of the year so far are: 1) Jordan Kovacs safety play 2) Blake Countess CB play 3) Jake Ryan stepping up at OLB The Worst stories of the year: 1) Troy Woolfolk reverting to his old habits from the last 3 years: 13 tackles, 1 PBU, no picks, no fumble recoveries 2) Mike Martin being non existant in every game so far: 20 tackles, no sacks, no pass tips, no forced fumbles, 1 TFL 3) Craig Roh being non existant except in 3 games so far this year:


Fri, Oct 28, 2011 : 12:12 a.m.

Very serious question -- Greg Robinson and the defensive coaching staff in 2009 and 2010 must have done *something* they would have called coaching. What do you suppose was the issue there? I can see a couple of possibilities: (1) They were coaching what they *thought* was effective technique, but was not (2) They were coaching more scheme and packages than fundamental technique (3) They truly were incompetent and didn't know what to do I threw (3) in there for completeness -- I don't really believe they were entirely incompetent. If I had to guess it would be more (1) and (2), and probably an equal mix of both. Thoughts?


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 11:03 a.m.

Great article, Helps explain the amazing turn around of the defensive line. Still don't know why the LBs are playing so much better this year. Leverage and coaching offensive clues?