Wisconsin Football: Tip of the cap to Jim Leonhard the Defensive genius

Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard during training camp at Camp Randall Stadium. Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY NETWORKNCAA Football: Wisconsin Badgers-Training Camp
Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard during training camp at Camp Randall Stadium. Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY NETWORKNCAA Football: Wisconsin Badgers-Training Camp /

Offensively, Wisconsin football has a well-established culture of running the football and by doing the dirty work in the trenches to wear opponents down. This long-standing consistency has in large part helped the Badgers become the nationally recognized program they are today.

However, the program has quietly helped transform their identity on the other side of the ball as well. In the last decade, Wisconsin has only finished outside the top 20 in total defense one time, which is no small feat. Wisconsin has been fortunate to have had some bright defensive minds come through the program, perhaps none brighter than its current defensive coordinator – Jim Leonhard.

In-state hero, Jim Leonhard is beloved by Wisconsinites due to being a walk-on turned 3x All-American safety as a member of the Wisconsin football program. Following a successful 10 year career in the NFL, Jim Leonhard took a year to study with former Wisconsin defensive coordinator (current Baylor head coach) Dave Aranda.

In 2016 Jim Leonhard would be named Wisconsin’s defensive backs coach and begin what would become a meteoric rise to the top of the program – being named the team’s defensive coordinator just a year later.

Now entering his fifth full season as defensive coordinator, Jim Leonhard has had the Badgers unit ranked top 10 in total defense in three of the last four seasons, and is in a good position to make that four of five.

Defensive Rankings Under Jim Leonhard

  • 2020 – 5th in total yards (31st in passing yards, 5th in rushing, 9th in PPG allowed)
  • 2019 – 8th in total yards (16th passing yards, 8th in rushing, 10th in PPG allowed)
  • 2018 – 41st in total yards (38th in passing yards, 56th in rushing, 43rd in PPG allowed)
  • 2017 – 1st in total yards (4th in passing yards, 2nd in rushing, 3rd in PPG allowed)

Through his first four seasons, the Badgers rank 3rd nationally in scoring defense, 4th in yards allowed, 5th in rushing defense, 5th in pass efficiency defense. Not to mention the Badgers have forced the 2nd most turnovers nationally under his tutelage (104) – and 2nd most interceptions (68). In 2019 specifically, Leonhard’s defense posted four shutouts – which made Wisconsin football the first Big-Ten program to accomplish such a feat since 1962.

Not too shabby of a resume for a coach who is still only 38 years of age. This is why Jim Leonhard is squarely on the radar of programs and NFL teams alike. This past off-season, the Wisconsin-born Jim Leonhard turned down what seemed like a dream opportunity when he would be offered the defensive coordinator for his hometown Green Bay Packers.

In a story from JSOnline writer, Jeff Potrykus, Leonhard was asked why he declined the offer and decided to remain in Madison, Jim Leonhard had this to say:

"“The players, the staff … we have the highest goals here,” Leonhard told reporters Wednesday. “I came here wanting to win a national championship. I came here wanting to win the Big Ten as a player. Nothing has changed as a coach. We haven’t done that since I’ve been back.”"

The Wisconsin football team has reached the Big-Ten title game three times since he’s joined the program, and has aspirations of playing a role in getting the Badgers over the hump. We should consider ourselves fortunate to have a person, player, and coach of Jim Leonhard’s caliber as one of the faces of our program. He’s by all accounts a terrific players coach and a brilliant defensive mind on the rise.

The day will likely come that Jim Leonhard decides he needs to move on and pursue greener pastures, much like current head coach Paul Chryst did when he left to become the head coach at Pittsburgh. With Paul Chryst only being 55 years old there is certainly no clarity on how much longer he intends to coach the program, but one could assume quite a while yet. Whenever the day comes that Paul Chryst decides to hang it up one thing is for sure, Jim Leonhard should be at the top of that wish list in sharpie.

Appreciate Jim Leonhard’s brilliance while we have him because he’s a rare breed.

On Wisconsin.