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Wisconsin football assistant coach profiles: defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard

A look at Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard who is arguably the top defensive coordinator in the country heading into the 2022 season.

The Wisconsin Badgers football coaching staff underwent an uncharacteristically high amount of change since the team beat Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl back on December 30. 

With several new coaches on the staff, and multiple retained coaches shifting responsibilities, All Badgers will spend the next week providing an overview of each position coach on head coach Paul Chryst's coaching staff. 

Up first, let's take a deeper look at defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who is one of the top assistants in the entire country. 

Name: Jim Leonhard

Role: Defensive coordinator/safeties position coach

Hometown: Ladysmith, Wisconsin 

High school: Flambeau High School in Tony, Wisconsin

Alma mater: University of Wisconsin

Years at Wisconsin: Leonhard is entering his seventh season on the Wisconsin coaching staff, and his sixth as the full-time defensive coordinator. 

Previous coaching experience: Leonhard joined Paul Chryst's staff a year after retiring from the NFL despite not having any formal coaching experience at the college level.

Playing history: Leonhard put together a historic career as a player at Wisconsin. After walking on with the Badgers in 2001, the 5-foot-8 safety would go on to be one of the most productive defensive backs and return men in program history. A three-time All-American, Leonhard averaged over 12 yards per punt return and held the UW record for most punt return yardage with over 1,300 with three touchdowns. Defensively he was an absolute ball-hawk, with a nation-leading 11 interceptions in 2002 and finishing his time in Madison with a program-tying 21 interceptions.

Despite his gaudy statistics from college, Leonhard was overlooked in the NFL Draft due to his size and signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent. Leonhard would put together a decade-long career in the league with six different teams and play for some of the best defensive coordinators in the game.

As a recruiter: Leonhard takes an active role in recruiting most defensive prospects, but he primarily focuses his attention on recruiting the safety position nationally. He is frequently involved with cornerback recruiting at a national level as well, with position coach Hank Poteat, though he also covers the state of Florida on the state level.

Leonhard's abilities as a defensive play-caller make him one of Wisconsin's top recruiters, though he is usually a secondary contact for front-seven defensive prospects. Many recruits specifically mention Leonhard as a big draw on the recruiting trail.

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Coaching trends: Leonhard is widely regarded as one of the top defensive coordinators in all of college football. While he utilizes a base 3-4 scheme, his defense deploys various fronts, with a 2-4-5 design regularly used against pass-heavy teams. Leonhard is known for using an array of stunts and blitz packages to aggressively attack offenses while leaving his defensive backs in man-to-man coverage. That is not to say he does not use zone coverage ever, but Leonhard uses a lot of movement and misdirection to keep offenses guessing, regardless of the coverage. 

Leonhard is an incredibly cerebral play-caller and is one of the most intelligent people inside the Wisconsin program. Players frequently highlight how he can make the complicated nuances of reading offenses and learning new techniques easy to understand. 

One of his strengths is his adaptability. Leonhard has shown a willingness to adjust his defense each year to match the personnel, which has helped maintain Wisconsin's stout defense year in and year out, despite player turnover each season. 

Five miscellaneous facts:

  • Under the leadership of Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin has had 13 defensive players drafted, dating back to 2017. This includes three AP All-Americans in TJ Edwards, Zack Baun, and Leo Chenal.
  • Leonhard has been a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in all of college football, several times during his career with the Badgers.
  • Leonhard has turned down multiple other coaching positions to stay at Wisconsin the past few seasons, including the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator position back in 2021.
  • Leonhard was inducted into the UW Athletic Hall of Fame back in 2015.
  • Since taking over as defensive coordinator, Wisconsin's defense ranks inside the top five of the following categories: scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense, opponent completion percentage, and opponent third down conversion percentage. Last season, the Badgers were No. 1 nationally in total defense and rushing defense.

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