Success for the University of Wisconsin defense doesn’t start on the practice field. It doesn’t stem from the weight room or recruiting trail.
All those areas play a role in making the Badgers one of college football’s best defenses, slowing opposing offenses and eliminating their rushing attack. But the results the group has put on display this season begin with defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard analyzing the film, breaking it into chunks for each position group to understand and identifying the opportunities for the Badgers to strike.
The stakes are high as No. 18 UW (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) prepares for Minnesota (7-4, 5-3) this week. UW not only will retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but it’ll punch its ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis if the defense again can rise to the occasion and keep the Gophers in check.
Leonhard’s film study was the base upon which a three-time college All-American and 10-year NFL career was built, and he’s made it a fixture of his coaching at UW. He’s one of 15 semifinalists for this season’s Broyles Award, which is given to the best assistant coach in college football.
“Coach Leonhard has a saying that football is an easy sport that coaches make complicated,” UW senior cornerback Faion Hicks said.
Added senior linebacker Jack Sanborn: “He teaches you how to simplify the game. ‘If this guy does this, put your eyes here. Look for this.’ He’s got a great knowledge of the game. He’s the smartest football guy I’ve ever really seen. … Learning from him, you’ve got to take everything that it gives you. And it’s always right, too.”
Distilling the information
If an opponent’s offense presents a bathtub full of information, Leonhard only wants his players focusing on a single glass.
That’s the mentality that has the former Badgers star spending multiple hours per day studying tendencies and concepts, trying to find tells or situations that can lead to turnovers, sacks and the like. The plan’s success depends on the players understanding that week’s defense and playing within it until the right opportunities arise.
“You can’t give guys so much information that they slow down,” Leonhard said. “You can’t try to cheat every play. There is a high, high majority of plays where you’ve just got to execute your job. And there might be small indicators that can help you, but you’ve just got to do your job. And then there’s ones where you can’t miss. These are your opportunities. It’s a little bit of an outlier in what they do, and if you can recognize it, you’ve got an opportunity to make a big play.”
Two Badgers games within the past year epitomize Leonhard’s ability to give his team an edge before it takes the field. Last season’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl swung on its head when the Badgers nabbed four second-half interceptions and helped the offense punch in scores.
Multiple players told reporters postgame that the concept Wake Forest favored on third down — option routes by the slot receiver — was something Leonhard drilled into them during their days of prep. When those situations arose in the second half, UW’s nickel corners forced the slot receiver inside and UW safeties Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder were able to pounce for two of those interceptions.
“Coach always says, ‘I’m trying to throw the lob, you’ve just got to finish it,’” Nelson said after that game.
It was a similar situation this season at then-No. 25 Purdue. The Badgers were throwing a number of looks at star Boilermakers receiver David Bell, knowing that whichever safety wasn’t helping on Bell would be in position to jump throws toward tight end Payne Durham. Wilder came up with an interception on such a pass and stripped the ball from Durham to account for two turnovers. Safety John Torchio sprinted in front of a pass over the middle of the field for a pick as well.
Leonhard said he enjoys that the Badgers’ defense has gotten to a point where teams are trying double-moves, trick plays and other tactics to generate offense.
“You’ve got to get guys to understand that you have to play aggressive — you want to play aggressive, you want to challenge guys and receivers and offenses,” Leonhard said. “But you have to be smart because that’s when they’re going to try to mess with your eyes. They’re trying to search. They know they can’t just consistently work the ball down the field, they need to find a way to trick you as much as it is beating you.”
Habits formed as a player
Leonhard got the sense early in his playing career that he saw things differently from others. He understood the relationship between alignment and field spacing, and how offenses aren’t running just one play. They either are establishing a base for something else they do or they’re using a branch from one of their core concepts.
Leonhard’s journey from walk-on at UW to college star, then from undrafted NFL free agent to valued piece of some of the best defenses of the 2000s is well documented. He credits the knowledge he brought into games for his ability to make plays despite not being the same level of athlete as some of his peers.
“I knew I needed to find a way — you have to be real with what your skill set is, what you’re good at. I could communicate really well,” Leonhard said. “And I could see. You were not going to beat my eyes very often. And I had a lot of confidence in that, and that came through film study. It came through preparation and just trusting what you see at that point and being aggressive once you see what you need to go make a play.”
Leonhard’s defensive schemes have their roots in what Rex Ryan ran with the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets over the past 15 years. Leonhard played for Ryan with both franchises, and during an interview on the “Pardon My Take” podcast last month, Ryan said that Leonhard’s intelligence and toughness were key reasons the Jets went from the No. 23 defense in the NFL to the No. 1 defense in Ryan’s first season.
Ryan is now an NFL analyst for ESPN, which did not respond to multiple requests to make Ryan available for this story.
Adjusting his plan
UW made a significant change to the coaching staff’s structure this offseason and hired cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat.
That decision allowed Leonhard to coach the safeties by themselves while still coordinating the defense. Leonhard credits Poteat’s individual instruction of the corners for their improved play this season and said having another experienced coach to share ideas with during a week of film study is helpful and has better-informed practices each week.
Leonhard said the amount of time he spends breaking down an opponent’s film depends on the schemes and personnel it features.
“The good offenses slow that process down and make you worry about a lot of issues and think about a lot of different things,” Leonhard said. “Kind of slows you to get down to those little indicators, the little details for this guy, maybe it’s this corner, a specific receiver.”
But what players appreciate is that Leonhard is able to connect new additions to a game plan to something the team has done before. That’s been crucial during the second half of the season, especially the four-week stretch in which UW played drastically different offenses in Army, Purdue, Iowa and Rutgers in consecutive weeks.
Hicks said that Leonhard and his staff make it clear what concepts are simply for that matchup — such as a superstar opponent such as Bell or run fits against Army’s triple-option — and what could be drawn upon later in the season.
Leonhard’s excitement when his defense makes a play is evident on the sideline. He said that his film-study process feels fulfilled when his players execute what he’s shown them.
“I think it’s always fun when you can scheme things up to help put guys in position, or technically, ‘Hey, when you see this, these are your opportunities to jump on it,’” he said. “You see guys trust it and just play fast and confident.”