The 2016 season marked Jim Leonhard’s first season as a coach — at any position, on any level. In 2017, he’ll be Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator.
The Badgers made the announcement Thursday through their official team site, naming the 34-year-old second year assistant their new top defensive coach.
A former three-time All-Big Ten safety at Wisconsin, Leonhard played 10 seasons in the NFL for various teams before joining the Badgers’ staff last season as defensive backs coach. That one season was exceptionally good, it should be noted. Wisconsin closed the year ranked 10th nationally in pass efficiency defense, permitting 6.5 yards per attempt on 52.5 percent completions for 13 touchdowns against 22 interceptions. He was named a finalist for the FootballScoop Defensive Backs Coach of the Year finalist.
“A year ago, if you were to ask me if this was going to happen, I’d probably would have laughed at you — not knowing exactly how it was going to go and how it would work out,” said Leonhard, who had no previous coaching experience prior to taking over the UW secondary last season,” Leonhard said.
“Paul brought me in and asked me if I was interested. He thought I was ready and he thought I could handle it. I was excited about the possibility and kind of wanted to see where I was at — if I really wanted to entertain the idea.”
Head coach Paul Chryst said he talked with linebackers coach Tim Tibesar and defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield about the job, then ran the idea up the flagpole to AD Barry Alvarez. All were on board with Leonhard taking the reins of the defense.
“To me, for a coordinator, there has to be certainly a football knowledge level,” Chryst said. “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.
“And, then, I think a big part of coordinating is connecting. It’s connecting the coaches and coming up with and coordinating the different units into a scheme. It’s connecting the coaches to players. It’s finding ways to connect players to players and how you play.
“It’s connecting how one unit plays off the other two units. In this case, how does the defense play off of and with the offense and the special teams? Jimmy has a skill that he can connect groups of people. As a coach, teacher, I thought he’d be really good last year at this time.
“Now, I know that he’s a heckuva teacher.”
The Wisconsin defensive coordinator job has quickly become one of the best assistant jobs in all of college football. Dave Aranda translated his success in Madison into becoming the highest-paid assistant in college football at LSU, and Justin Wilcox created the vacancy Leonhard filled by taking the head job at California.
“The thing that has allowed him to make this jump was the type of football player that he was. He was a smart player,” Alvarez said of his former player. “He didn’t have tunnel vision. He saw the whole field. He understood the game. He was the defensive quarterback. He had to tie it all together. He’s just a natural. He’ll be awesome.”
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