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How Badgers ILB Leo Chenal brings energy to the Badgers despite his inward personality

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Leo Chenal often finds himself yelling on the football field.

He says most of the time words aren’t coming out and a message isn’t being delivered. Like Michael Scott with a sentence, Chenal will start yelling without knowing where it’s going, but he hopes he’ll find it along the way. This is just one aspect of the intensity Chenal brings to the University of Wisconsin football team as one of its star inside linebackers.

“I was always the guy that’s screaming — maybe I’m not screaming a message, I’m just screaming a sound,” Chenal said with a laugh.

Chenal is always on when it’s time for football. Practices, games, film sessions, whatever — his energy always is high, and it’s an asset to his game as important as his strength and speed.

UW needs all the energy Chenal can supply this week as it tries to pick itself up after stumbling out of the gate. The Badgers (1-3, 0-2 Big Ten Conference) face their first true road game of the season Saturday at Illinois (2-4, 1-2) and need to find a way to win to begin turning around a season that is teetering on disaster.

Chenal has played every snap of the past two losses after missing the first two games after contracting COVID-19. He was out there imploring UW to keep swinging even late in the game against Michigan, when victory was out of reach.

“He just loves football,” junior safety John Torchio said. “Like the last possession (of the Michigan game), he’s like, ‘Come on, we need a turnover, we need a turnover.’ The switch is never off.”

Added freshman tailback Braelon Allen: “He’s a crazy guy before the games. … He just has an energy to him that kind of brings it out of me. And I know we kind of connect in that way.”

Love of football is one of the first traits Chenal’s teammates and coaches will bring up when they talk about the junior from Grantsburg. It’s one of the first things Chenal shares when he talks about his game and the dedication he’s put into it.

That expressive nature on the field is a 180 from who Chenal is off it. He’s quiet and likes to keep to himself when not wearing his pads. His time away from the game and the team often is spent alone, with his family or among a small circle of friends.

Neither side of Chenal is a façade covering for the other, rather they’re two ends of his personality that find their outlets in different arenas.

“I think the best thing that he does is he’s authentic as can be,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “Every moment he steps onto that field, he has that same mindset. … The way he carries himself and the way he approaches it can be contagious, it’s infectious. … You talk about being all-in? That guy is all-in on every play, everything he’s doing.”

Instant impact

UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard knew he and his staff would have to help Chenal control his energy when he made his season debut against Notre Dame.

After testing positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 3 — one day before the season opener against Penn State — Chenal was ruled out for at least the game against the Nittany Lions and the following week against Eastern Michigan. With a bye week included in his time off, Chenal said he spent so much time studying the Irish and felt so amped to be back on the field he was a detriment to the defense early in that game.

“I was getting overexcited a lot of the times in the first half against Notre Dame,” he said. “I was kind of cheating things up and it kind of messed up my assignments and it kind of hurt others as well.”

Even if he wasn’t perfect, Chenal immediately made his presence known. He had a team-best eight tackles, one for loss, and a forced fumble against Notre Dame. He had 12 tackles and a quarterback hurry against Michigan. Chenal is second on the team in tackles with 20 despite playing only two games.

The physical side effects of Chenal’s COVID case are fading. He said after the Notre Dame game his conditioning had slipped a bit after not being able to work out without feeling sick. But he said Monday he’s feeling better through long workouts and games.

Leonhard relies on Chenal to make tackles in the run game and often has deployed him as a pass rusher. Chenal’s relentless energy helped him get on the field as a freshman and has powered him to become one of the Big Ten’s best linebackers.

“He’s not going to miss opportunities,” Leonhard said.

“You just think of any random training camp practice or a game where all of a sudden he makes a play and everyone just elevates their game. Or it’s one of those where everybody in that stadium notices. Obviously that’s going to affect some people on the other side of the ball. It’s fun to watch. It’s hard to do. I wasn’t around very many people that could be at that level, all the time, non-stop.”

One of Chenal’s best on-field skills is his ability to defeat blockers. He’ll sometimes achieve that goal with quickness by beating a blocker to the spot — essentially not allowing the blocker to engage with him as he pursues the ball. But oftentimes he’ll simply overpower a blocker with his violent hands and strength buoyed by a 420-pound bench press.

“If you take a wrong step, you’re not in the right body position, he’ll make you pay every time,” senior offensive tackle Logan Bruss said.

A ‘quirky’ loner

Chenal had to spend 10 days in isolation after learning he tested positive for COVID. Not being able to practice and play football crushed him. The being alone part … not so much. Chenal says he likes to stick to himself when he can.

That’s not to say he doesn’t like being around his teammates — they’re some of his closest friends in Madison and his brother, John, is UW’s senior fullback. Chenal’s got a reputation for cracking dad jokes and doing things that make teammates pause and laugh.

“On the field, he yells like, ‘Hee-hoo,’ and he has all these little one-liners and stuff,” Torchio said. “He’s just a quirky guy, but that’s who he is. And he knows that is he is and plays to it.”

Those quirks were present in high school as well, when Chenal was garnering Gatorade state player of the year honors and dominating the Lakeland Conference.

“He did all sorts of goofy stuff,” said Andy Hale, Chenal’s football coach at Grantsburg.

“He’d do weird yells like that, chants, get guys to kind of smile and loosen up and join in. As a coach, you really like it because he’d break up some of those days our kids are kind of in a funk or just quiet and going through the motions. He never did that. He’d always kind of bring some excitement, try to bring some energy that way.”

When Chenal gets downtime, teammates are more likely to find him playing video games than out and about. Gaming helps him calm down after his day is done, he said.

Chenal’s play naturally has other players looking to him as an example. Not everyone’s a natural leader, and Chenal has spoken with teammates about how he can insert himself among the group of leaders more this season.

“When you think of Leo, you think of a true competitor, true football guy,” senior cornerback Faion Hicks said. “It’s amazing to see him grow. … He was a little quiet at first, kind of shy, didn’t want to talk to nobody. But just kind of seeing him grow and that confidence grow in him over the course of these years here.”

Football is Chenal’s solace, and if he continues playing the way he has in a UW uniform he very well could make a living at it. The sport allows him to open up more than he does outside of it.

“I think football, for me personally, is so much different than out in the world,” Chenal said.

“I feel like when I step on the field, it’s like a whole different me that comes out, where it’s like I’m not afraid, I just go all out vocally and everything. It’s always been that way. I’m not a very talkative guy. I’m not going out hanging out with everybody. But when it comes to the field, I’m going to hype everybody up.”


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