Wisconsin Football: Get to know new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard

Oct 12, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive back Jim Leonhard (30) against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 12, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive back Jim Leonhard (30) against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports /

The Wisconsin Badgers hired Jim Leonhard as their new defensive coordinator Thursday afternoon.

Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst said he would have a hire in place to take over the defensive coordinator position after Justin Wilcox left for California, and he kept his promise.

Related Story: Chryst says new DC will be hired by end of week

On Thursday, the Badgers hired/promoted defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard as their new defensive coordinator, an internal move that has become a popular choice since the announcement.

Leonhard is just two years out of retirement from the NFL and has spent just one season on the Badgers’ coaching staff with no prior coaching experience.

“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,” Leonhard said.

So why are Badgers fans so excited about a guy with no prior experience taking over the backbone of the Wisconsin program at the moment?

Like Chryst, Leonhard has Wisconsin roots having played for the Badgers in the early 2000s. Born and raised in a small town in Wisconsin, Leonhard received no scholarships out of high school and ended up joining the Wisconsin program as a walk-on, not receiving a scholarship until his senior year. He was three time All-American and played in every game of his career.

Leonhard was recently inducted in the 2015 Badgers athletics hall of fame following his NFL retirement before joining the coaching staff for the 2016 season.

One of the question marks entering the 2016 campaign for the Badgers was their inexperienced secondary. Leonhard did wonders with the group, leading a group that was second in the NCAA in interceptions. The 22 interceptions in 2016 is tied for the most in history as the 2002 Badgers team also recorded that mark, in which Leonhard himself had half of the picks.

Following Leonhard’s college career, again he went unnoticed- failing to get selected in the 2005 Draft. Despite this, he went on to play a long and illustrious NFL career. He bounced around the league playing for six different teams but settled into his role nicely on special teams and the occasional defensive backfield. In 2008, due to a teammate injury, Leonhard started 16 of the final 17 games for the Baltimore Ravens, including all three in the playoffs. Leonhard ended his career in 2014 as a member of the Cleveland Browns

Career NFL Stats:

  • Tackles: 429
  • Sacks: 4.5
  • Pass deflections: 36
  • Interceptions: 14
  • Forced Fumbles: 2
  • Return Yards: 1,277

Leonhard will take on his new role with love and support not only from the fans, but coaches and players who feel he is the perfect fit for the job.


“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.”

Leonhard’s first game leading the defense will be a Friday night home opener against Utah State to begin the 2017 season.