His players can practically set a timer to it at this point.
As soon as a Power Five head coaching job becomes available, it will be just a few hours before University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s name is on that program’s short list of targets.
This isn’t new for Leonhard or for the Badgers. When a unit has the success Leonhard’s defense has had at UW, outside interest will grow. So far this season, Leonhard has been linked to the coaching vacancy at Illinois, a spot that was filled by former UW coach Bret Bielema.
What makes programs’ pursuit of Leonhard unique is he doesn’t shy away from discussing his future with his players and those around him.
“I think whatever he tells us, we can trust him,” senior safety Scott Nelson said.
“And so it’s not like one of those things where you hear stuff and he doesn’t acknowledge it. He’s very open with us and stuff like that. So just being able to have that open communication, he treats us like adults, he doesn’t kind of try and hide us from stuff that he knows we hear and see. But I mean, we know him and we know what he tells us what he says that he wants.”
The Badgers (3-3) will likely have to hear more rumors swirling about Leonhard after they play in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against Wake Forest (4-4) on Wednesday.
Leonhard has said repeatedly Madison and the UW program are home for him. Even as potential suitors such as Alabama, Texas A&M and others have tried to lure him with more money or a promotion, Leonhard values what UW provides him.
“I understand what UW’s all about,” Leonhard said. “I grew up here. This was kind of the dream job to come back and coach.
“Also being on a lot of different teams, you just realize the culture is different every single place. Not bad — it doesn’t mean it’s bad or good, just understand it’s different. There is a comfort level here, understanding what this place is about and how I’m allowed to coach and act and recruit, kind of the whole big picture of what college football is.”
An ‘amazing’ way of teaching
Leonhard’s coaching career may be short — he’s in his fifth season on the UW staff and fourth as the defensive coordinator — but it’s an accomplished one.
Over Leonhard’s first three seasons as coordinator, UW’s defense ranked fifth out of 127 FBS teams with 112.3 rushing yards allowed per game, and the unit finished in the top five of those rankings twice. His unit this season leads the FBS in total defense (263.5 yards per game allowed) and third-down defense (25.4% conversion rate).
But Leonhard is able to relate to players with first-hand experience. He was a walk-on safety who started 39 games for the Badgers and became a three-time first-team All-American. He parlayed that success into a 10-year career in the NFL.
“He seems to have the answer to everything that you’ve got to ask him,” junior cornerback Faion Hicks said. “For somebody that played so long in the league, 10 years, he’s seen it all. So any questions you could have, he can point you in the right direction and he can show you what you’re looking for. It’s great to have a coach that played that long in the league because he understands it. He understands it from a body standpoint or a technique (standpoint).”
Players say Leonhard doesn’t bring up his playing days accolades often, but they know he’s teaching them techniques and schemes that have roots in his experience at the college and pro levels, especially for members of the secondary. Leonhard is still the team’s defensive backs coach as well as the defensive coordinator and play-caller.
“I think it’s very cool being in the meetings with him,” said senior safety Eric Burrell, who has been at UW since the beginning of Leonhard’s coaching tenure.
“We learn a lot from him. Just watching film with him and trying to get better, I think he has a good feel for where guys are at. Obviously (some) guys are a lot smarter or more mature than others, but he just figures out where you’re at and how to go about it. Every guy learns different, so I think it’s very amazing the way that he teaches people.”
Continuing to learn
Despite the success his side of the ball has had in his tenure, Leonhard has continued to push to add more to his repertoire.
That drive to become better is a trait that served as the backbone of his playing career and it’s translated well into his coaching.
“I think we’re all continuing to improve and I think Jim’s no different,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “Some of the things are small: How you organize things, or communicate differences in how you go about game-planning. I think he does a really good job of drawing from other guys on the staff and getting their input.”
UW has had continuity in its defensive coaching staff under Leonhard, and those staffers see Leonhard’s mark rub off on UW’s defense.
“Knowledgeable, smart coach, does a great job with the players,” defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said. “He’s a players’ coach in terms of doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low, just steady. Doesn’t need to yell and the players appreciate that. I think he gets the most out of not just his position, but the defense as a whole. Just being kind of who he is has helped the defense tremendously.”
Chryst has been in Leonhard’s position before. During his tenure as UW’s offensive coordinator from 2005-12, Chryst was regularly brought up in head-coaching searches. But, like Leonhard, his connection to Madison led him to stay put longer than many expected.
“It’s a credit to Jim and people are taking notice of it,” Chryst said of the rumors. “And it’s part of it, and it’s a good part of it. But it’s not necessarily a … it’s probably as much of a distraction as someone chooses to make it, and that hasn’t been the case.”
Appealing as being a head coach or other opportunities may be, Leonhard said he’s focused on continuing to raise UW’s program. Leonhard’s recruiting has helped land recruits such as Jake Chaney and Ricardo Hallman in the 2021 class.
“A big part of me coaching is wanting to come back here and make this place better,” Leonhard said. “I had a great experience as a player and want to give that back to the next generation.”
As more coaching vacancies come available this offseason, Leonhard’s name is sure to be brought up as a candidate. Regardless of if or when the day comes that Leonhard leaves UW, his impact on the players he’s coached is undeniable.
“He’s only getting better, he’s only getting us better, so I think when the time comes, probably later down the line, he’ll be a head coach somewhere if he decides to take that path,” Burrell said. “For right now, what he’s doing is unbelievable. He could go anywhere in the country, but he decides to be here … I’m excited to have him on my side.”
Breaking down the Badgers’ 2021 recruiting class
Breaking down the Wisconsin Badgers 2021 recruiting class by position
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Deacon Hill (Santa Barbara, Calif.)
Quick analysis: Hill has a strong arm and shown enough in camps to rise to a four-star recruit on Rivals. Competition level is a question mark at the high school level, but he’s got the tools to be a good college quarterback.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Hill: Quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr “identified him really early. We thought he had great arm strength when you compared him to the best players in the country who were out there. We thought he was right there from the jump. … We really liked him, we felt personality-wise the people that surrounded him and supported him, how he worked, all those things were a great fit for us.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Jackson Acker (Madison), Braelon Allen, (Fond du Lac), Loyal Crawford (Eau Claire), Antwan Roberts (Nashville, Tenn.)
Quick analysis: There’s been talk about Acker switching positions at the college level, but UW listed him as a running back Wednesday. Acker didn’t play in the fall due to COVID-19, but he has shown a good mix of speed and power as a ball carrier. … Allen is a surprise to move to this group, weighing 240 pounds, but he's got an athleticism and physicality that's rare for his age. ... Crawford has a James White-level ceiling as a third-down back and the most shiftiness of the bunch. … Roberts has explosion and proven ability to run through tackles.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re all kind of unique. Jackson’s a guy that obviously would have position flexibility, but he kind of is explosive. … Then you see Loyal, and Loyal’s got great speed, great change of direction, a chance for a home run hitter. I think he’s got great quicks in and out and, again, I think all these guys, we’ll find out exactly where they’re at when they come in, but I think guys that are just really good football players as well. … Antwan, what he does to this point, complete back and had a great senior year.”
Number of players: 2
Who are they: Skyler Bell (Bronx, N.Y.), Markus Allen (Clayton, Ohio)
Quick analysis: The Badgers landed two players who possess good speed and agility at arguably the biggest position of need in the class. … Bell has a suddenness to his cuts that makes him dangerous as a receiver and returner. … Allen shows good ball skills when making contested catches and great body control.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Bell, who wasn’t able to visit campus before committing: “I just think you take the time to reach out. Whether it was Zoom meetings with him and his family, or whether it was phone calls, you took the time to be able to answer questions that pop up in their minds. I think those things are always huge.”
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Jack Pugh (Columbus, Ohio)
Quick analysis: He has long strides that help him cover a lot of ground and he’s shown an array of route-running skills from both an on-line and split-out positions.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Pugh: “Jack played his first year of football last year. This was his second year. Really a guy that was a hoop player that jumped into it. Watching his film, I thought he was really physical for a guy that hadn’t played football. He was physical at D-end as well as tight end. I think he’s got the ability to separate. I think he’s got really a lot of speed and explosiveness.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: JP Benzschawel (Grafton), Riley Mahlman (Lakeville, Minn.), Nolan Rucci (Lititz, Pa.)
Quick analysis: The Badgers are set up to continue churning out great O-lines for years to come after an impressive haul of linemen in 2019. … Benzschawel is the third of his brothers to come to UW, and he’s shown great power and strength as a blocker. … Mahlman might be the most athletic of the bunch, having played tight end for a time in high school and as a basketball standout. … Rucci, the lone five-star recruit in the class, has all the tools to become an All-American tackle.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re big, athletic guys that you have to have as defenses are pretty darn athletic and being able to keep up with them. … I think those guys match in their work ethic and their mind-set, I think they’ll make a major impact here.”
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Mike Jarvis (Medford, N.J.)
Quick analysis: Jarvis was recruited as both an offensive and defensive lineman, but UW will look to make him a defensive end. He has good quickness but will need to add weight and strength at the college level.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Jarvis: “He fits what we do, the right mentality. He can get after people. Very physically impressive at the high school level. We’re looking forward to developing his skills as we continue to push what we can ask our defensive line to do. You turn on a tape and you go, ‘Dang, everything we ask our guys to do, he’s putting on tape for you.’”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Jake Chaney (Cape Coral, Fla.), Jake Ratzlaff (Rosemount, Minn.), Bryan Sanborn (Lake Zurich, Ill.)
Quick analysis: UW won't need these players to be ready to play immediately after seniors Jack Sanborn and Mike Maskalunas decided to stay this offseason. … Chaney posted back-to-back 100-tackle seasons as a junior and senior and has a nose for attacking the ball and creating fumbles. … Ratzlaff is another wild card. He has the speed and athleticism to play at any linebacker spot and turned down a hockey scholarship to Minnesota to play football. … Bryan Sanborn has good closing speed and often was used as a blitzer in high school.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Ratzlaff: “We’re excited for him because as talented as he is, he really has not focused solely on football. So we still feel like there’s a ton of growth in his game and coming from a very, very high, high level of play already.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Ayo Adebogun (Mequon), TJ Bollers (Tiffin, Iowa), Darryl Peterson (Akron, Ohio)
Quick analysis: This group rivals the O-line as the deepest, most talented chunk of the class, but don’t be surprised if one or more of these players ends up being listed at another position in the future. … Adebogun, a lineman in high school, has a tremendous first step. … Bollers has the size to potentially play on the line, but the quickness and block-shedding of an outside backer. … Peterson was a prolific pass rusher in high school and could help UW soon.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Bollers: “We love his versatility. (We) see him as an outside linebacker, kind of plus. We think he can do a little bit more than that position and provide some flexibility for us. Great physicality with what he shown in high school. As he grows into his body, it’s going to be a lot of fun to put him in different positions.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Al Ashford III (Denver, Colo.), Ricardo Hallman (Miami, Fla.), Hunter Wohler (Muskego)
Quick analysis: Ashford already plays with the aggressive style that Leonhard loves and he’s borderline obsessive about learning and refining technique. … Hallman is a true ball hawk and uses his athleticism to close on balls in the air faster than opposing receivers. … Wohler, Wisconsin’s two-time AP state player of the year, is a special blend of ball skills and physicality as a safety.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Wohler: “Probably as highly recruited of a skill player in the state in a long time. Extremely talented. What he does at the safety position in impacting games at that level was a lot of fun to watch.”