Looking the part has never been an issue for Leo Chenal.
At 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, the sophomore inside linebacker for the University of Wisconsin football team is physically ready to assume a bigger role in the No. 14 Badgers defense. Ask his teammates and coaches, and the physical tools Chenal possesses are quick to come up.
This summer while the Badgers were away from campus due to COVID-19, Chenal made waves with videos he posted on social media of him bench pressing. One video showed Chenal, who’s set to make his first career start Friday when UW hosts Illinois, benching 225 pounds 40 times, and another showed him completing 18 reps at 315 pounds.
For reference, at the 2020 NFL scouting combine, the highest number of bench reps of 225 pounds was 44 by offensive lineman Netane Muti; no linebacker completed more than 30 reps.
“That man is crazy,” senior safety Eric Burrell said of Chenal.
‘He’s one of the strongest guys we have on this team. He gives 110 percent every play, every play. You can look at him like, ‘Golly, this dude’s still going.’ He’s taking over (Chris Orr’s) job, I think he’s doing a hell of a job. I’m excited for what he has to bring this year, his first start. I think we’re all excited for his opportunity and I think he’ll be ready for it.”
Chenal played in 11 games last season, spelling Orr at the inside linebacker spot next to junior Jack Sanborn. He tallied 20 total tackles, two for loss, a sack and recovered a fumble. After playing a good amount in lopsided, early-season games, Chenal stepped in when Orr suffered a concussion against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. He notched four tackles in that appearance.
UW’s inside linebacker group, outside of Sanborn and senior Mike Maskalunas, is thin on experience. Position coach Bob Bostad said he feels “rock solid” about his top trio, but the young, talented crop of freshmen in the group need more time to develop.
That means Chenal must take a big step in understanding the defense and communicating, things Bostad has seen during preseason practices.
“The thing I like about Leo is I don’t see him struggling with some things. He’s not what I would call a high-rep guy where he needs to see it a million times. I think he’s pretty sharp that way, and he really wants to do it. He’s got the right desire and the right mindset. Obviously he’s got some physical traits that are off-the-charts, but you’ve got to have that other half of it. I’ve been really, in the short amount of time, I see some little things that I’m going, ‘Oh OK, he’s seeing it,’” Bostad said.
“It’s just taking those traits that he has and trying to get him to feel really comfortable with the scheme and those things to be able to use those really high-level traits.”
Illinois’ offense has the tools to make life difficult on opposing linebackers.
Brandon Peters, the Illini’s starting quarterback, is back after helping to engineer the team’s upset win over UW last season. He has a number of returning weapons, including his top two receivers in Josh Imatorbhebhe and Donny Navarro.
UW’s defense allowed five plays of at least 20 yards last season, accounting for 53 percent of the Illinois offense and two touchdowns.
Sanborn was in a position like Chenal is, asked to take on a large role early in his career. He said he’s advising Chenal to believe in himself and what he can do.
“I think a lot of it has to do with between-the-ears, just confidence. That was a big thing that Chris always talked to me about, just being confident,” Sanborn said. “It’s still just a football game and you’re on a little bit bigger of a stage, but just be confident. You’ve been in all the preparation, you know the game plan, you know everything that you need to do to get your job done and do your job well. Now it’s just going out there and making plays.”
Orr became one of the Badgers’ top pass rushers last season, registering 11½ sacks and providing consistent pressure up the middle on opponent’s quarterbacks. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has said he expects the defensive line to pick up some of the slack in rushing the passer.
Whatever Chenal’s role becomes, coach Paul Chryst believes the defense is best with him on the field.
“Still young at it, and yet had enough experience that a lot of those coaching points, they resonate differently when you’ve played. He’s got an idea of why that’s being said or why there’s that coaching point,” Chryst said of Chenal.
“But I think he’s a guy that for us to be the best defense we can be, Leo’s a guy that needs to play, and I think we can expect him to play at a pretty high level. Certainly fortunate to have him and it’s fun to see his growth.”
Get ready for Badgers football with our complete preview
Get ready for Badgers football season with State Journal's complete 2020 preview
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