The long wait is over, as the Wisconsin Badgers will have their third defensive coordinator in as many years. it’s a name very familiar to long-time Badgers fans and to those who are more recent to the fold — Jim Leonhard.
On Thursday, head coach Paul Chryst made the announcement public.
It certainly is a bold move for the third-year head coach, as Leonhard has just one season as the defensive backs coach at Wisconsin on his coaching resume. However, that clearly didn’t scare him off.
“To me, for a coordinator, there has to be certainly a football knowledge level,” Chryst said, via UWBadgers.com. “Jimmy has far more than just a one-year level of coaching knowledge; X’s and O’s, scheme knowledge. In fact, I think he has got great football schematic knowledge.
He could’ve easily gone the more experienced route with an internal hire, making outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar the choice. Instead, Chryst appears to have gone with his gut instinct and went for the coach with the big upside.
So, what could Chryst have seen after only one season on the job?
Perhaps it was the performance of Wisconsin’s secondary in his one year that turned Chryst on to giving Leonhard more responsibility on the defensive side of the football. After all, the Badgers pulled down 22 interceptions, a total that ranked second in the FBS and marked UW’s highest output since 2002, when Leonhard grabbed a school-record 11 of UW’s 22 picks.
Wisconsin’s 22 interceptions came nearly out of nowhere, especially for a group that was turning over three of the four starting positions and was filled with youth and inexperience. Instead of being a handicap, the secondaries ability to play one-on-one coverage and succeed allowed the rest of the defense to be more free as well.
Leonhard’s skill set as a coach helped transform players like Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon in to one of the best safety tandems in the Big Ten. Musso led the team with five interceptions, while Dixon became a hard-hitting safety with a nose for the football as well.
Senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton also returned to the form that saw him earn freshman All-American honors four years ago. That form had him named first team All-Big Ten this year.
While all of that is nice, it was just one season some will point out. Very true, but his ability to quickly transfer his own skill set and knowledge to the players he was coaching was invaluable last year.
He’s shown a clear knack for getting his players to buy in to what he is saying and is a natural recruiter.
Leonhard’s hire also means that Wisconsin has ex-players as head coach and both offensive and defensive coordinator positions on the staff. Few in the country can claim that.
As for what this defense will look like under a player most remember as a monster in Alvarez’s 4-3 looks — don’t expect much change from what you see today according to Leonhard.
“That’s who we are,” Leonhard said of the 3-4 defense. “I love the flexibility in it. That’s what I played in during my career. I see the value in starting there and building your defense out of that. I’m excited to see what as a staff we decide to clean up a little bit or change.
“Like I said, we can roll out the same thing we did last year and have a lot of success. A lot of it will look very similar to people who don’t know. But I’m going to make it my own in some ways. And I’m going to make sure the players understand it and take ownership.”
Time will tell if this gamble pays off, but the early returns on him as a coach clearly show he has the confidence and knowledge to get his players to perform at a very high level.