Leonhard brings NFL experience to Badgers
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin is on its third defensive coordinator in as many seasons, but may have finally found stability this spring.
It has been just more than two years since Jim Leonhard retired after 10 seasons in the NFL. Now, Leonhard could be leading the defense at his alma mater for a while, even if he just got into coaching a year ago.
"Two years ago I was at home, mentally needed a break from football," Leonhard said Thursday. "I knew coaching was always a strong possibility and decided to go with it a year ago, and things changed pretty dramatically again this season."
Leonhard was promoted this offseason from secondary coach to replace Justin Wilcox, who left Wisconsin after one season to become head coach at California. Wilcox had arrived in Madison from Southern California to replace Dave Aranda, who took the same job at LSU.
The constant has been that Wisconsin's defense hasn't missed a beat despite the turnover. Wilcox tweaked the aggressive 3-4 scheme that Aranda successfully implemented during his time at Camp Randall Stadium.
The 34-year-old Leonhard should have some leeway on defense given that coach Paul Chryst tends to focus more on the offense. While it's a bit early to discuss roles and the playbook, Leonhard doesn't seem as if he's preparing for a makeover.
The Badgers were fourth in the FBS in scoring defense (15.6 points) last season and seventh in total defense (301.4 yards.)
"The NFL is such a big matchup league, and I think you bring some of that to the college level," Leonhard said. "You don't go crazy. ... I'm not going to try and reinvent defensive football here at Wisconsin."
Leonhard spent time at safety with five NFL teams, including four years over two stints with the Buffalo Bills.
He had an immediate impact coaching the Wisconsin secondary, which turned into one of nation's best ball-hawking units in 2016. He will be relying on a couple holdover assistants, outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar and line coach Inoke Breckterfield, as he gets acclimated to his new coordinator role.
Safety D'Cota Dixon will miss Wilcox but also welcomes Leonhard's promotion. Instead of adjusting to a new coordinator, a familiar face will be making the defensive calls.
"I wasn't surprised. It felt like he was already our defensive coordinator in a lot of ways," Dixon said. "It really feels the same."
NOTE: Starting ILB T.J. Edwards is sitting out this spring with a foot injury, but plans to be ready for summer workouts. Edwards led the team with 89 tackles.