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.
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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.”
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.”
Wisconsin vs. Illinois football: 3 keys to victory, why attitude matters for the Badgers and predictions
WHO HAS THE EDGE
When the Badgers have the ball
Freshman running back Braelon Allen showed he was ready for lead-back responsibilities last week with his 173-yard, three-touchdown performance against Northwestern. The Wildcats’ defense was one of the worst in the country at stopping the run, but Allen has a stiffer test coming against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers rank 39th in the FBS and seventh in the Big Ten allowing 132.5 yards rushing per game.
Nebraska will be playing its first game of the season without linebacker JoJo Domann, who’s out for the season with a hand injury. Domann was third on the team in tackles with 72 and had nine tackles for loss, including three sacks. He also had two picks and two forced fumbles. Linebackers Luke Reimer (96 tackles), Nick Henrich (87 tackles) and Garrett Nelson (45 tackles, 10½ for loss) will be tasked with slowing down Allen.
UW quarterback Graham Mertz and the passing game have found a rhythm in the past three weeks, adding balance to the offense and improving the team’s ability to convert third downs. UW has converted 46.2% of third downs the past three games and 28.4% the rest of the season. If Mertz can continue moving the chains and avoiding turnovers, UW’s offense should be in good shape against Nebraska’s pass defense, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten (230.6 yards per game allowed).
When Nebraska has the ball
Nebraska’s offense starts and stops with quarterback Adrian Martinez. When he’s good, the Cornhuskers are tough to stop because he can challenge the defense deep with his arm while also taking advantage of space underneath by scrambling. Martinez is Nebraska’s leading rusher (50.2 yards per game) and passer (251.2 ypg) this season.
However, when he’s bad, it often means turnovers and big plays the other way. Martinez has thrown eight interceptions and has lost three of his seven fumbles this season. Martinez has had success against UW before, averaging 375 total yards of offense and 2.5 total touchdowns in two matchups.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said the 2019 game against Nebraska opened his eyes to some adjustments the Badgers needed on defense, and he said he believes the group is better-equipped to contain Martinez this season.
Samori Toure, a transfer from Montana, leads Nebraska in every receiving category (33 catches, 718 yards, four TDs). UW was also in pursuit of Toure on the transfer market. Running back has been a weak spot, with Rahmir Johnson leading that group with 495 yards on 112 carries. Tight end Austin Allen (29 catches, 404 yards, two TDs) is a difficult matchup on size alone — the junior is 6 foot 9 and 255 pounds.
The Badgers have been creating turnovers at a high rate during their win streak. Their 17 takeaways are the most of any Power Five team over that six-game span.
Nebraska’s field-goal kicking has been a consistent weakness this season, and coach Scott Frost said Monday there wasn’t much he could do to ensure his kickers are ready psychologically to perform. Connor Culp (6 of 12) and Chase Contreraz (2 of 4) are a combined 6 for 11 on field goals under 40 yards.
The Cornhuskers, like the Badgers, haven’t produced much in the return games.
UW’s Andy Vujnovich is fifth in the Big Ten with an average punt of 45.4 yards and 11 of his 42 punts this year have gone for 50-plus this season.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
UW’s six-game winning streak is tied for second-longest under coach Paul Chryst. He is 5-0 against Nebraska since becoming UW’s coach, with the average score in those games being 32.4-20.
Mertz has thrown for more than 210 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in his career.
Frost is 0-5 at Nebraska the week following an open date, with one of those losses coming to UW in 2019. The Cornhuskers are on a four-game losing streak; the program has had a losing streak of at least four games in three of the four years Frost has coached.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERS
1. Keep building passing attack: Graham Mertz is looking about as comfortable as he has in the pocket for the Badgers over the past three weeks. He’s been decisive in his decision-making, and he’s paying off good protection and open receivers with solid pay. UW should keep up that against Northwestern, especially with play-action passes early in the game. Northwestern is going to have to commit extra bodies to stopping the run, and Mertz should have one-on-one opportunities early and often.
2. Get an early lead: One through line during the Badgers’ five-game win streak has been getting leads in the first half. The only game in the streak that the Badgers lost that first-half lead was at Purdue, but UW got a late field goal to tie the game before halftime. Leads allow coordinator Jim Leonhard to unleash the front seven in the pass rush, and Northwestern’s middle-of-the-pack offense — eighth in the Big Ten in rushing and passing — can’t operate one-dimensionally if the score forces it to throw more.
3. Dominate the interior: Leonhard credited the work of nose tackle Keeanu Benton and the entire defensive line for how effective the unit has been this season. He said by sharpening their angles and allowing them to be more downhill, it’s helped create more disruption in the backfield. Northwestern’s interior line isn’t likely to be able to handle Benton or ends Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens. The Wildcats allow more than five tackles for loss per game, and the Badgers are tied for 17th in the FBS with 6.8 TFLs per game.
THREE KEYS FOR THE WILDCATS
1. Keep Marty moving: Northwestern has used just about every realistic option it started the season with under center at some point this season. Senior Andrew Marty has gotten the bulk of the work the past two weeks and it’s probably the best decision the Wildcats can make. His 60.5% completion rate is the best on the team, and he’s a willing runner despite being a 6-foot-3, 224-pound pocket passer. His mobility could be helpful in buying time against UW’s active pass rush, turning sacks into throwaways.
2. Muck it up: Whatever the Wildcats have done trying to stop opponents’ rushing attacks this season hasn’t worked, so Northwestern should muck it up against the Badgers’ resurgent ground game. What’s that look like? Blitzing linebackers, shooting gaps and hoping those tactics lead to chaos in the backfield. This is a high-risk, high-reward proposition — this strategy also could lead to huge lanes to the second and third levels for UW rushers — but the way the Wildcats are playing up front must change for them to have a chance.
3. Tackle Braelon Allen: UW will need freshman tailback Braelon Allen to be the primary tailback and carry the biggest load of his young career with junior Chez Mellusi out for the season. Allen already has shown prowess in running through tackles — PFF credits him with 4.03 yards after contact per carry. Northwestern is tied for 12th in the Big Ten with 117 missed tackles, per PFF, so a step forward in this area is necessary.
Series: UW leads 60-37-5
First meeting: UW lost 22-10
Last meeting: UW lost 17-7 last season
UW's longest winning streak: 13 games (1972 to 1984)
UW's longest losing streak: Six games (1929 to 1937)
It’s difficult to envision the Badgers' opponent getting to double-digit points. Northwestern doesn’t have enough firepower to handle UW’s defense, which really only has been beaten by high-level receivers. Northwestern has been able to drag UW into rock fights despite a talent gap in the past, but its defensive front is in for a long afternoon against UW’s offensive line.
UW quarterback Graham Mertz should be able to find holes and exact some revenge against the defense that started his downward trajectory last season.
Badgers 35, Northwestern 7
The fan's pick
Northwestern visits Camp Randall this weekend. How is it going to go?— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) November 11, 2021