Column: Jim Leonhard has Wisconsin defense once again among nation's best
In No. 10 Wisconsin’s Week 1 win over Illinois, it happened on the Fighting Illini’s first drive in the fourth quarter — backup quarterback Isaiah Williams replaced starter Brandon Peters, who had completed just eight passes for 87 yards to that point. He promptly threw three incompletions and added an interception for good measure.
In their dismantling over Michigan at the Big House last week, it came a little earlier for the Badgers’ defense, this time near the end of the third quarter. Backup signal caller Cade McNamara replaced the highly-touted Joe Milton and even brought with him some success, albeit short-lived. Milton finished with nine completions, 98 yards and two interceptions — bad enough that Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh opened the position back up for competition this week.
The two starting quarterbacks to face the Badgers have combined for nine completions on 38 passing attempts, 185 passing yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Two games, two starting quarterbacks benched.
There’s one mind behind it all.
“Jim Leonhard,” safety Eric Burrell started to say on Monday. “That guy there is a genius.”
Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator has hardly made a wrong decision thus far — although they have only played two games, Leonhard’s unit leads the nation in both points-per-game allowed and yards-per-game allowed, and ranks in the top-10 in both passing and rushing yards-per-game allowed and third-down conversion rate.
This is despite Leonhard losing some of his most effective playmakers from his highly-ranked defense a season ago. Notably, he lost linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr, who combined for 24 sacks last year, to the NFL.
During spring ball in 2018, following his first season as defensive coordinator, Leonhard faced a similar situation — he had to replace starting linebackers Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, starting defensive end Alec James and starting defensive backs Derrick Tindal, Natrell Jameson and Nick Nelson. Andrew Van Ginkel and Zack Baun, aiming to fill in the holes left behind at linebacker, assured The Daily Cardinal that Leonhard’s crew “doesn’t rebuild. We reload.”
Van Ginkel and Baun have since finished their illustrious collegiate careers and departed for the NFL, but their mantra has become tradition under Leonhard.
“We don’t rebuild. We just reload,” linebacker Jack Sanborn said Tuesday. “I think that’s true. The coaches every week put us in a position to go out there and make plays. If you buy in from the start and just work your tail off, you will have the opportunity to go out there and make plays. It seems like guys when they come in just make plays, and that speaks to not only coaching but all the work everybody is putting in.”
That consistency has driven Leonhard’s defense since he took over, netting him two top-five defenses in the country in his three years in charge of the unit. That consistency has allowed guys like Sanborn and Leo Chenal – two players in expanded roles this season – and true freshman Nick Herbig to not miss a beat in taking over as playmakers. That consistency has fueled two Big Ten West titles and gotten the Badgers within arm’s reach of the College Football Playoff.
Despite quarterback Graham Mertz’s early heroics, if Wisconsin is to make a run at a Big Ten title or Playoff appearance – ESPN currently gives them the third-best chances in the nation to win the National Championship – it will continue to flow through Leonhard and his defense.
Saturday’s game at No. 19 Northwestern (4-0) represents perhaps the biggest regular season obstacle to those aspirations. The winner will have a direct path to the Big Ten West title and likely a date with No. 3 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.
It also represents Leonhard’s toughest assignment to date: NU quarterback Peyton Ramsey. A senior, Ramsey has completed 65.8 percent of his passes, tossed six touchdowns and recorded a 131.1 passer rating, and has led the offense to the tune of 28 points a game.
No doubt, Leonhard will have a fresh game plan and point of attack for Ramsey just as he did Peters and Milton. Specifically, he said Wednesday that he’s looking at ways to improve the pass-rush, one of the few measures the Badgers have worsened in compared to last year.
“He gets a lot of credit and it’s well-deserved,” Burrell said. “He studies film more than anybody, He’s got a good defensive staff and they do a good job coming together and putting us in the best positions possible.
“It’s up to us to go out there and execute the game plan.”
With Leonhard on the headset, they likely will.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter