April 21--MENOMONIE -- It's still a little early for Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to really establish what the identity of his defense will be, but the first-year coordinator and Flambeau graduate knows he's in a pretty lucrative spot.
The former Wisconsin All-American and NFL veteran takes over a unit that finished seventh in the nation last year in total defense. He's no stranger to it as he was the defensive backs coach under Justin Wilcox, now the head coach at California.
Leonhard is the third defensive coordinator in three years at Wisconsin as Dave Aranda -- now at LSU -- was Wilcox's predecessor. Leonhard will have his own style in time, no doubt, but he knows he doesn't have to steer the ship far from its current course. Fans will get their first look at it tonight in Wisconsin's annual spring game at Camp Randall.
"I'm excited with some of the small changes I've made just how open the guys were to it," Leonhard said Wednesday night in Menomonie. "We're going to be aggressive. We're going to challenge receivers. We're going to stop the run. But I didn't have to change much. This defense was in a very good spot."
Leonhard's presence already had an effect last season as Wisconsin picked off 22 passes in Leonhard's first year on the defensive staff. That was up 10 from the previous season.
Wisconsin lost key cogs on that side of the ball in Vince Biegel, Leo Musso and TJ Watt, but Leonhard will still have plenty of guys at his disposal and several back from injuries. Jack Cichy, Chris Orr, TJ Edwards, Derek Tindal and Leon Jacobs all return.
The last two seasons, Wisconsin has had an emergence of a defensive star in Joe Schobert in 2015 and Watt last year. With both gone, Leonhard and head coach Paul Chryst will look for someone else to take that leap.
"Going in knowing we can kind of stay as is and tweak a little thing here or there, that's been the fun part of spring," Leonhard said. "Now through fall camp, you find out who your playmakers are and develop game plans around them."
Just 34 years old, Leonhard is officially two months into his first gig as a coordinator at a major program. Prior to Wisconsin, he enjoyed a 10-year NFL career. The Tony native and former Flambeau state champion is ready for his next step.
"No. 1 is just having final say in everything and really leaning on my coaches and asking for a lot of input and reaching out to a lot of friends, coaches and people in the business to bounce ideas off them," Leonhard said. "As a defensive coordinator, you have to take care of everyone a bit. It's a fun challenge. I've really enjoyed it."
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