- The Badgers' defense entered the 2017 season on its third defensive coordinator in the last three years, but it hasn't slowed down under former NFL safety Jim Leonhard.
When Jim Leonhard retired from the NFL after the 2014 season, his plan was simple: Move back to Madison. The former Badgers safety, a native of Tony, Wisc., wanted to live in his home state, in the city where he’d attended college and met his wife. He planned for a year away from football.
That year would be defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s third and final season at Wisconsin, and he and Leonhard struck up a bond once the younger man arrived in Madison. Leonhard, who was inducted into Wisconsin’s Athletic Hall of Fame in the fall of 2015, was interested in the college game and how it had changed in the decade since he’d played. Aranda was curious to hear his perspective, and so for an hour or two most weeks, the men watched film together.
That season, Wisconsin had the No. 2 defense in all of FBS ball, allowing opponents just 268.5 yards per game—nearly eight yards per game fewer than Alabama. Aranda, already a respected coordinator, saw his profile rise further, and after the season, he left for the same job at LSU. Six weeks later, restructuring its defensive staff under new coordinator Justin Wilcox, Wisconsin hired Leonhard to be its defensive backs coach.
In a way, it was a happy (if not at all surprising) accident. Leonhard hadn’t retired with a plan to look for a coaching job somewhere; he’d retired with a plan to return to Wisconsin, and within less than a year, he was hired. When he took the job, he inherited a unit that returned just one starter from the year before; still, the Badgers finished last season with the country’s No. 15 pass defense, allowing opponents only 174.3 yards in the air per game en route to the Cotton Bowl and a No. 9 ranking in the final AP poll.
Again, it was exactly the kind of defense that gets a coordinator hired away—which happened in January, when Cal hired Wilcox to replace Sonny Dykes. On to its third coordinator in as many years, Wisconsin opted to promote Leonhard, who was just 34 at the time, rather than look outside. “This is definitely not what I had planned,” Leonard said last week, gesturing at his office and laughing.
Since taking over, Leonhard and Wisconsin’s defense haven’t missed a beat. Going into their game this weekend at Indiana, the Badgers are 8–0 and one of just four undefeated Power 5 teams. They’re ranked No. 9 in the inaugural College Football playoff rankings, which were released Tuesday, a spot that’s largely a result of the team’s cakewalk of a schedule thus far. Things will get a bit tougher next weekend against Iowa, and Michigan travels to Camp Randall on Nov. 18. That was supposed to be the season’s hallmark game, but the Wolverines’ less-than-stellar year hurts Wisconsin’s strength of schedule further. The Badgers finish the year against Minnesota, and they very well might be 12–0 heading into the Big Ten title game—which they haven’t yet technically clinched but will almost certainly earn a berth in.
By avoiding the Big Ten’s toughest cross-division teams in 2017—something entirely out of Wisconsin’s control—it’ll be largely in the dark as to its playoff fate until December. It’s entirely possible that the Badgers could continue winning and not crack the top four until the final ranking, which means that for now, they must control what they can control: one of the country’s most dominant defenses and an offense that complements it even more than the Badgers offense of a year ago.
Sure, the statistics come with a grain of salt considering Wisconsin’s toughest opponent to date might be Florida Atlantic—but that shouldn’t totally discount what the defense has done with such consistency and physicality. Leonhard’s unit boasts the No. 5 defense in the country, allowing opponents just 268.0 yards per game. It’s anchored by the run defense, which is also ranked No. 5 and has allowed an average of 93.8 yards per game. And against the pass, Wisconsin is the No. 15 unit, allowing a perfectly respectable 174.3 yards per game. In addition, the Badgers are averaging 3.5 sacks, good for No. 5 in the country, and their defense has scored four touchdowns this year; only Texas has more.
Alec James, a senior defensive lineman, says the carousel of coordinators illustrates what a business college football is. But there are positives to the change, he adds. “It also shows you different coaching styles,” James says. “We haven’t lost a step in our defense over the past four years. Coach Aranda was real cerebral, real quiet in terms of talking to the media and things. Coach Wilcox was more outgoing. He kind of would interact a lot more. Coach Leonhard, he’s kind of a mix of both.”
All four offenses that remain on Wisconsin’s schedule are in the bottom half of the FBS in total yardage this season. Keeping up the pace its set through two-thirds of the season shouldn’t be too tough for the Badgers defense down the stretch, but in Indianapolis, it’ll get a team just as well-rounded as it is in Ohio State or Penn State. That’s a month away, though, and if this week’s playoff ranking says anything, it’s that Wisconsin must keep playing at the level it has and stifling opposing offenses to keep the committee’s respect. It seems more than prepared to do so.