MADISON — With Wisconsin in the midst of a 49-11 win over Michigan in November 2020, ABC television’s announcement team of Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit speculated that defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard may one day leave Madison.
“I’m not trying to push him away,” Herbstreit said on the show. “He’s one of those coordinators that a lot of people will want to talk to.”
Less than three months later, Leonhard was a candidate to become the defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers.
Leonhard ultimately chose to stay at Madison, having said no thanks to openings from several high-profile college programs earlier in his career.
UW defensive players understand the nature of the coaching profession. They see coaches come and go. Still, they’re not surprised Leonhard is entering his sixth season as UW’s defensive coordinator and seventh overall on Paul Chryst’s team.
More importantly, their appreciation of Leonhard’s loyalty knows no bounds.
“To turn down all that money and come back here, you have to love us,” said main tackle Keeanu Benton. “You have to have love for the team you’re on. He does. He doesn’t have to do that. He doesn’t have to be here.
“So to be able to be with him for four years and kind of pick his brain and help me take it to the next level, I appreciate him for that. And if he ever leaves, whoever gets his hands on him will be blessed. He’s so awesome. He’s the guy, for real.
“He loves Wisconsin. He loves us. I respect him for that.”
Nick Herbig is gearing up for his third season at UW under outside linebackers coach Bobby April and Leonhard.
Herbig wondered if Leonhard would leave before he was done playing at UW. He is delighted to see Leonhard back on the sidelines.
“This guy is the best defensive coordinator in the country,” Herbig said. “He will probably be a head coach one day. I mean, I can’t believe he didn’t leave. I’m so glad he didn’t because I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else. Every day I am grateful that he is my coach.”
Why does Herbig consider Leonhard the best defensive coordinator in America?
“At the end of the day, men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t,” he said.
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Under Leonhard, the Badgers finished in the national top five in total defense and top 10 in defense four times.
Over the past five seasons, UW is third in points allowed (17.3 per game), first in total yards allowed (284.8), first in passing efficiency defense (110 rating). .5), first in third defense (30.5% conversion rate) and third in rushing defense (103.4 yards per game).
Last season, Wisconsin held foes to 239.1 yards per game, the No. 3 mark in program history and the lowest total at UW since 1954. That defense allowed an average of 231.0 yards per game on a nine-game schedule.
“If you look at the numbers,” Herbig said, “Coach Leonhard is the best. He’s been doing it since he was DC. It just shows what kind of coach he is.
“We didn’t have the same defense every year. Different faces, different names and somehow we’re still up there. Obviously it has something to do with it.
Sophomore safety Hunter Wohler, a graduate of Muskego High School, came to UW in large part because of Leonhard.
“I was excited, obviously,” he said of Leonhard’s decision to stay in Madison despite interest from the Packers. “Learning from one of the best – probably the best safety in Wisconsin – and one of the smartest football players to ever play. He had to find his own way, be an extra and always be in doubt.
“To be able to learn from him and talk to him about football and life. … He’s a great person. It’s a blessing to have him here, to always have him around. I love him and I love him. ‘thank you.”
Was Wohler surprised?
“I’m a little surprised, but that says a lot about who he is and the values he has,” Wohler said. “It’s not just about being the big guy under the lights. He just likes to handle business and be around guys. He knows he’s making a difference here with everyone, turning boys into men.
“So I can’t say I’m (as) surprised because I know the kind of person he is and I’m just very grateful that he’s still with us.”
Leonhard is the third defensive coordinator to work for Chryst since returning to UW in 2015.
Chryst retained Dave Aranda from Gary Andersen’s staff, but Aranda left for LSU after the 2015 season. Chryst brought in Justin Wilcox, who led the unit in 2016 before leaving to take over the California program.
Leonhard joined the UW staff in 2016 as a secondary coach and was promoted to defensive coordinator following Wilcox’s departure.
Like Leonhard, Chryst had starting offers when he was UW’s offensive coordinator (2005-2011). He eventually left after the 2011 season to become a head coach at Pittsburgh.
“I went through a similar deal and there are a lot of things that come into play,” Chryst said. “If it’s just the profession, then people will make choices. So that’s all that’s best for the individual.
“Am I grateful he’s here?” Yes. Surprised? No. And not surprised that he had a lot of opportunities and will continue to have them.