There has been no shortage of positive buzz about Michigan’s defense in the early days of fall camp. Not even Greg Mattison is hedging, proclaiming during the Wolverines’ annual media day, “I think we’ll be good.”
One of the players responsible for instilling such confidence is Michigan sophomore defensive lineman Willie Henry. For a roster of players now notorious for bland generalities when discussing who is looking good in practice, Henry is one player for which many of them will make an exception. Henry is doing extremely well by all accounts, including his own.
“Fall camp is going great,” Henry said confidently. “Not just myself, but the whole D-line is out there competing, working hard, trying to win this first game.”
Rewind just a few short months to the end of the spring and the report on Henry wasn’t nearly as glowing. It was at that point that Michigan defensive line coach Mark Smith made it clear that one his brightest young stars wasn’t living up to expectations.
“Willie is a young man that has great potential,” Smith told GoBlueWolverine. “When I say that, I think Willie can be as good as Willie wants to be. When he decides that it is the time, then he will be. He had a good spring and one thing you’ve got to keep talking to Willie about is doing everything he needs to do on and off the field. With that message being sent, I think Willie has gotten a lot better.”
“Willie is making good progress. I feel very good about Willie. I have a positive outlook for Willie. You can see him… and I am going to use that word mature again… you can see Willie starting to mature a little bit. We’ll wait and see if that holds out over the long haul, but I see Willie making good strides, making good progress in being able to help us win a lot of games.”
The challenge was clear. Henry had shown promise during his freshman campaign, but in the eyes coaches he was going down a path on which much of that promise would be left unfulfilled.
“They see more (in me) potentially,” said Henry. “They’ve been doing this for so very long. I’m just a player trying to reach my full potential. They know where a player like me can head. That’s what they’re trying to push for, for me to be a better Willie Henry.”
“They came to me personally and were like, ‘we need more from you, on and off the field.’ I took it as a man and I stepped up on the field trying to make more plays and encourage the young guys (and) bring the team along with me. If I’m having bad day, teammates like Ondre Pipkins and Frank Clark (are) people that I can go talk to. (They can) help me become a better player and things of that nature.”
Clark in particular has played a major role in Henry’s maturation. They were high school teammates at Cleveland Glenville and have faced similar challenges in acclimating to life in Ann Arbor.
"I have seen some growth in Willie,” said Clark. “He struggled in the past like I struggled when I came to Michigan. It’s just new. When you come from where we come from and you’ve got a guy like (Cleveland Glenville headman) Coach (Ted) Ginn, that’s a guy you’re going to listen to your whole life. You don’t think that there is another guy out here like coach Ginn until you get to Michigan and Coach Hoke is just like Coach Ginn. He’s like another fatherly figure in your life. Willie struggled with the trust factor just like I struggled with the trust factor when I first got here. But when he finally began to understand, ‘these coaches love you… these coaches have your best interest (at heart)… these coaches want to look out for you’… when he finally understood that, that’s when he started to relax (and) let his guard down. He wasn’t so defensive and everything started to fall into place for him.”
In other words, Henry has completely bought in. Getting to the point of letting his guard down wasn’t an easy process, but he has definitely done so.
“It was a new environment,” explained Henry. “You go with the coaches through the recruiting experience, but then when you get here, you’ve got class and you’ve got football. It’s a lot for a kid transitioning from the inner city of Cleveland to an upper class program like the University of Michigan. It’s a transition, so you get out of your comfort zone a little bit and when you’re not used to getting out of your comfort zone. It feels kind of different. I had to adapt to the environment that they put me in. It is just adapting from environment A to environment B.”
Now that he has his performance in practice has stepped up a notch. He expects the same will happen on game days.
“I come out here with a goal… a mission,” Henry said emphatically. “Like I said, Coach Hoke and them, they challenged me in the offseason. We took it all in, in the summer. I competed with Ondre Pipkins (and) the whole defensive line during summer conditioning. I just feel like I pushed myself better in the offseason so that I could be better out here in fall camp… to make me a better player. Whether it is explosion or working with my hands with Coach (Will) Carr. We all out here and come to work.”
“I love getting after the quarterback. I finished the season with maybe half a sack. I’m expecting to step that up and be more aggressive and being in the quarterbacks face for more hurries, things of that nature. (I want to) disrupt the pass. We weren’t that good on third down so I’m just looking forward to getting after the quarterback.”
If things go according to plan, he won’t be the only Wolverine in the opposing backfield. He expects the entire unit to take a major step forward because of the commitment they all showed during the offseason to getting better, and the commitment they all showed to getting closer.
“Everybody communicating, everybody being on the same page will help us be a great defense this year.”
“In the past, maybe people thought that if they weren’t seniors they couldn’t be a leaders, but no that is not the case. You come out, work hard, and you do what you have to do , and you’re a leader in your own way. We’re looking at it like even a freshman that comes in that might not have any (experience), but if he is working hard and doing the right things, why can’t he be a leader? It is not about the status of whether you played, maybe it is leading in a different way… work ethic and that sort of thing. Everybody is coming out here saying that people can be leaders in their own way.”