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For Jim Leonhard, would allure of Packers, NFL be enough to make him leave the ‘dream job’ he loves?
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For Jim Leonhard, would allure of Packers, NFL be enough to make him leave the ‘dream job’ he loves?

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Jim Leonhard has coached at UW since 2016.

GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur has vowed to cast a wide net in his search for the Green Bay Packers’ next defensive coordinator, but the coach just might find his man only 142 miles from Lambeau Field — at Camp Randall Stadium.

An NFL source confirmed Tuesday afternoon that LaFleur was set to talk with University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard about the Packers’ vacant position, though it was unclear when that conversation was going to take place and just how intensely Leonhard was pursuing the opportunity.

LaFleur parted ways with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine last week after Pettine’s contract expired and LaFleur decided the Packers “just needed some new leadership on that side of the ball.” Pettine, originally hired by LaFleur’s predecessor, Mike McCarthy, in 2018, spent three years running the defense.

Leonhard, a three-time All-American safety at UW who played 10 seasons in the NFL, spent six of those pro seasons playing for Pettine with the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns.

If the Packers were to hire Leonhard, it would indicate LaFleur doesn’t believe wholesale changes to the defense are necessary after the unit finished the 2020 regular season ranked ninth in the 32-team NFL in total defense (334 yards per game) and tied for 13th in scoring defense (23.1 points per game).

“I think if you look at the great defenses around the league, there’s a certain mentality that comes with that. And it’s not necessarily what you’re calling, but how you’re playing every call,” LaFleur said during Monday’s end-of-the-season Q&A session with reporters. “I think there’s a lot of great things our defense did this year, a lot of great things. ... But is there room for improvement in every area? Absolutely. Is there room for improvement for us as coaches? No doubt about it. It starts with us.

“I do think that there is a certain mentality that you have to have and have to bring on a daily basis. It starts in practice. And when you get your process right, when you get your preparation right, that leads to more consistency on the football field on Sundays.”

The 38-year-old Leonhard did not respond to an iMessage Tuesday. In an ESPN Wisconsin interview three years ago, he downplayed his NFL aspirations but did admit he would listen if the right situation presented itself.

“I do love coaching in college. I love being back here at my alma mater and honestly trying to take this program to places it hasn’t been,” Leonhard said then. “As far as the NFL, I don’t really know. I haven’t really thought about it too much. ... I’m happy being at Wisconsin right now, but I also am going to listen and see what’s out there and see the opportunities that come my way. That doesn’t change how I feel about this place.”

ESPN.com was first to report Leonhard was on LaFleur’s interview list, along with Packers defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, Browns defensive line coach Chris Kiffin, New Orleans Saints defensive line coach/assistant head coach Ryan Nielson and Philadelphia Eagles defensive line coach/run game coordinator Matt Burke.

ESPN.com said those who have already interviewed include Los Angeles Chargers defensive passing game coordinator Joe Barry, Washington Football Team defensive backs coach Chris Harris, Atlanta Falcons senior assistant Bob Sutton and Los Angeles Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero, who was on the Rams’ staff with LaFleur in 2017 and was a Packers quality control coach in 2016.

Leonhard’s name popping up in relation to other jobs has become an annual offseason ritual after four seasons as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator. He’s been a candidate for other defensive coordinator and coaching positions throughout the college ranks. In December he was rumored to be a candidate for the Illinois head coaching job that ended up going to ex-UW head coach Bret Bielema.

“I understand what UW’s all about … I grew up here,” Leonhard, who began coaching as UW’s defensive backs coach in 2017 after retiring as a player after the 2014 NFL season, said at the time. “This was kind of the dream job to come back and coach.

“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.

“There is a comfort level which — there’s other places that do it the right way and you’d like to take that culture wherever you go. (But I) definitely understand what Wisconsin is and a big part of me coaching is wanting to come back here and make this place better. I had a great experience as a player and want to give that back to the next generation.”

UW’s defense has finished in the top five of the FBS in rushing defense over Leonhard’s four seasons as coordinator, including this year’s fifth-place mark of 96.1 yards rushing allowed per game. His unit finished the 2020 season ranked fifth in the FBS in total defense (299.9 yards per game allowed) and in third-down defense (28.7% conversion rate).

ESPN NFL analyst Rex Ryan, who coached Leonhard with the Ravens and Jets, said in an ESPN Wisconsin interview in October he believes Leonhard can follow whatever coaching path he chooses.

“He’s so smart, and I can tell you this: I had Jim Leonhard jobs lined up at other universities — and Wisconsin fans are like, ‘Hey, stop it’ — that quite honestly you can’t get bigger on the college stage. And he stayed the course there at Wisconsin,” Ryan said. “That’s how much he loves that program.

“But believe me, everybody knows the job that Jim Leonhard’s doing. If he wants to be a head coach in college, I’m sure that’s down the road. Or, if he would ever like to get in the NFL as a coordinator, I’m sure he can do that as well.”

— Colten Bartholomew contributed to this story


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