MADISON, Wis. — Jim Leonhard found himself with more free time in the fall of 2015 than at any point in his life. He was back in Madison and between jobs, having finished a 10-year NFL career the previous season and looking for ways to occupy his days.
What better use of those hours than to fuel his passion by meeting on multiple occasions with Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and scouting opponents for the Badgers’ football team?
“That entire season, I was off and was willing to help Coach Aranda watch film, just break some stuff down,” Leonhard said. “Just give him a few things that I saw. Whether he used it or not, I don’t know. It was kind of early in the week, and I would come in at times. Not every week. But certain weeks, I’d just come in and give my two cents on it and what I saw.”
Those film sessions further demonstrated to Wisconsin’s coaching staff the sheer depth of Leonhard’s football knowledge. They also hammered home to Leonhard how much he valued teaching the game at his alma mater, where he was once a three-time All-American safety.
“I knew if I coached, it was going to be here at that point,” said Leonhard, 34, who is married and has two sons. “Madison is home. Madison was going to be home. This is where I was going to settle down. So if coaching was in my future, it was going to be here.”
In two years, Leonhard has gone from a non-staff volunteer working quietly in the background to running Wisconsin’s entire defense — an amazing, meteoric rise up the college coaching ranks. In his second year as a college coach, and his first as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, Leonhard has the Badgers in the same position as his predecessors, Aranda and Justin Wilcox: near the top of the FBS statistical rankings.
Wisconsin ranks No. 9 in the country in scoring defense (14.2 points per game), No. 10 in total defense (273.8 yards per game), No. 4 in rushing defense (81.4 yards) and No. 26 in passing defense (192.4 yards).
No. 7 Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) will attempt to continue its defensive dominance Saturday at home against Purdue (3-2, 1-1). And while Leonhard will quickly mention the players as the biggest reason for Wisconsin’s success, his impact on the group early this season has been substantial.
There are several things Leonhard brings that have resonated with players: his knowledge, willingness to listen, recent playing background and ability to simplify the game while instilling confidence in players, which has made them perform even better.
“I feel more comfortable when I’m playing, knowing I’ve got a coach like that,” Wisconsin cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “He’s putting in the work and putting in the time. He’s staying after, late hours, just to get our game plan ready to make sure everybody’s in the perfect spot. As far as anything changing, for us, it’s still the same thing. We’ve still got the same mentality. Work hard, make plays.”
Leonhard’s football IQ is unquestioned. Badgers safety D’Cota Dixon said he has tried to soak up as much information as he can from his coordinator, on anything from better understanding different formations to offensive tendencies based on position on the field.
Leonhard used his smarts and athleticism to go from walk-on at Wisconsin to one of the best defensive backs in school history. He was undrafted in the NFL but stuck around for a decade anyway. During Leonhard’s later years as an NFL safety, he became a mentor to younger players. But coaches also sought input from Leonhard on what adjustments he might make in a given week. Leonhard has converted those experiences into his coaching by routinely asking players where they might be comfortable in certain situations.
“You’ve got to know your players,” Tindal said. “He knows what we can do, what we’re best at. He puts us in that position. If Leon [Jacobs] is a great rusher, put Leon in the rush position. Instead of me blitzing, let D’Cota blitz because I can cover real good. D’Cota can blitz well. Just simple things like that. He’s a smart coach. It’s fun playing with him.”
Leonhard first earned a coaching opportunity last season, when Badgers coach Paul Chryst put him in charge of the team’s defensive backs after Daronte Jones left for the NFL. The defensive backs recorded 16 of the team’s 22 interceptions, which ranked tied for second in the FBS and represented the most by a Badgers team since 2002. Perhaps it was no coincidence. Leonhard set the school record in 2002 with 11 interceptions as a player.
The success Leonhard encountered last season made it easy for Chryst to promote him to defensive coordinator last February when Wilcox left after one season to become coach at Cal. Leonhard said he has kept the defense largely the same as what worked last season while inserting “a few tweaks.”
“The best thing that Jim has done is he’s not trying to put his spin on it,” Chryst said. “He and the rest of the defensive coaches are trying to make this the best defense with the group that we have. How do you help them play to their strengths, and how do you help them continue to get better?”
Wisconsin’s defense has been a reflection of its coordinator and lived up to the team’s three-word mantra: smart, tough and dependable. The Badgers rank No. 10 in the FBS with 3.6 sacks per game, which is up from 2.4 last season. They also lead the nation in opponent touchdown percentage in the red zone.
The defense has been especially ornery in the second halves of games, outscoring opposing offenses 18-14 this season, thanks to 2 interception returns for touchdowns and 2 safeties. Wisconsin has allowed 48 rushing yards on 55 second-half carries.
“I think they might be having the most fun it seems they’ve had,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said.
Leonhard will turn 35 on October 27, but his youth is seen as an advantage when it comes to connecting with players. Badgers inside linebacker Chris Orr noted Leonhard could relate on “an emotional level” and understand what they’re going through because he was an NFL player so recently. Leonhard decided to call plays from the sideline this season rather than the press box so he could better gauge the pulse of his players, look them in the eye and make sure there were no communication breakdowns.
“I think he’s more lively,” Badgers outside linebacker Leon Jacobs said. “He’s on the sideline with us. I think it just gives us a fresh set of juice. If we give up a score, he’s not as frantic. He’s, ‘Hey, you guys are good.’ For all of us older guys and young guys, no one is panicking, so we just go out and play.”
They have played as well as any defense in the country. And the scary part is that the coordinator leading them can only improve.
“Last year was huge,” Leonhard said. “I hadn’t been around college football. I hadn’t been in those meetings day to day. Obviously, it helped give me the confidence to feel like I could handle this role.”
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