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Suggestions for Wisconsin’s next defensive coordinator

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Who should take over for Justin Wilcox?

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NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Florida Atlantic Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday evening, Cal officially announced Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox as its new head coach, replacing Sonny Dykes.

Previously a defensive coordinator for five different programs, the 40-year old Wilcox came to Wisconsin from USC. Though many feared regression of UW’s 3-4 defense after Dave Aranda left for the same position at LSU, Wilcox’s lone season was a special one in Madison. The Badgers were among the nation’s best once again in 2016 despite a strong schedule, ranking in the top 10 of several major categories.

Head coach Paul Chryst will now look to fill the position for the second consecutive year, and there are some options both inside and outside the program.

Outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar

Last year, it appeared Tibesar was the front-runner for the spot—the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus even reported he was the most likely replacement for Dave Aranda before the hiring of Wilcox.

With Wisconsin searching for its third defensive coordinator in three seasons, the credentials of the outside linebackers coach speak for themselves. As noted a little over a year ago, these still hold true:

He has Big Ten experience, working as a defensive consultant at Northwestern in 2014 and the defensive coordinator at Purdue in 2012, when the Boilermakers led the Big Ten in interceptions, forced fumbles and takeaways. On top of that, he's also worked as defensive coordinator at Kansas State for two seasons from 2007-08 and North Dakota from 2004-05.

Tibesar also can sell his time in the NFL and CFL. In 2013, he was the linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears after helping the Montreal Alouettes win back-to-back Grey Cup championships as linebackers coach from 2009-10 and defensive coordinator in 2011.

The veteran assistant can be credited with helping outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel become one of the best duos in the nation, as they tallied 33.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks this season. Converted tight end T.J. Watt developed quickly under the tutelage of Tibesar, who saw his playing time increase through the season in various subpackages.

One wonders if Wisconsin would look from within to hire, or bring in someone from the outside. Also, as Fox Sports Wisconsin's Dave Heller tweeted on Saturday, some of the statistics with his time at Purdue or Kansas State weren't so hot.

During the 2016 season, Tibesar again tutored and evolved the games of Biegel and Watt, with the latter leading the Big Ten in sacks (11.5) and earning consensus all-conference honors and some All-American selections.

This year, as he did with Watt in 2015, Tibesar tutored and brought up to speed a couple of unproven players. Most notable was redshirt junior Garret Dooley, who filled in admirably for Biegel when the redshirt senior was lost for the Michigan and Ohio State games due to a fractured foot. Dooley finished fifth on the team in tackles for loss (6.5) and tied for third in sacks (3.5). Redshirt freshman Zack Baun appears to be the heir apparent to Watt’s spot at outside linebacker, and registered a career-high six tackles in the loss to the Buckeyes on Oct. 15.

With the help of the outside linebackers, Wisconsin’s defense ranked among the best in the country: tied for second in interceptions (22); third in rush defense (98.8 yards per game); fourth in both scoring defense (15.6 points per game) and third-down conversion defense (27.9 percent); seventh in total defense (301.4 yards per contest).

If Tibesar didn’t get the job last year after just one season in Madison, will the past 14 games and continued player development under his watch serve as an added spice to seal the deal, or do his defenses’ numbers from year’s past at Purdue or Kansas State still linger?

Coaching experience

2015-16: Wisconsin, Outside linebackers coach

2014: Northwestern, Defensive consultant

2013: Chicago Bears, Linebackers

2012: Purdue, Defensive coordinator/linebackers

2011: Montreal Alouettes, Defensive coordinator

2009-10: Montreal Alouettes, Linebackers

2007-08: Kansas State, Defensive coordinator

2004-05: North Dakota, Defensive coordinator

Defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard

Leonhard has only one year of coaching experience in college football, but the former walk-on, captain and Wisconsin All-American intrigues many after he returned to UW following a successful 10-year career in the NFL.

The secondary, which replaced three starters from 2015, erased question marks about the unit by tallying 16 of the team’s 22 interceptions and playing quite well (outside of the Big Ten title game). Sojourn Shelton was first-team All-Big Ten by the media and played his best season, while safeties D’Cota Dixon and Leo Musso locked down the defensive backfield. The defense as a whole was 10th in the nation in pass efficiency defense.

The lack of “experience” in coaching at this level is evident and the elephant in the room... however, if there’s anyone that can do it, it’s Leonhard. See the results of the secondary this season. He’s gelled well with his position group and there’s only room to grow heading into next season.

When interviewing Rex Ryan last spring, the former Buffalo Bills and New York Jets head coach gushed about Leonhard and his ability to pick up and lead his defenses. The Tony, Wis., native acclimated to Ryan’s 3-4 scheme immediately upon his arrival as a Baltimore Ravens free agent, and when Ryan later took over the Jets, Leonhard was one of the first defensive players he brought over. Ryan also shared an anecdote in Walk-On This Way about how Leonhard joked that he knew the defense better than Ryan’s defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine.

Leonhard’s intelligence and experience was highly sought-after in his later years. He played with the Denver Broncos, then with the Buffalo Bills and finished up with the Cleveland Browns—those last two years under Pettine and his scheme—as a player but also a pseudo-coach in adjusting other players to that style of defense.

The ingredients are there for Leonhard to be a successful defensive coordinator, but is the timing? After only two years of coaching, do you give him the keys to the car of a well-fueled defense returning key starters on all three levels? Would a co-coordinator look with both Tibesar and Leonhard leading aspects of the defense be worth a try?

Coaching experience

2016: Wisconsin, Defensive backs coach

Résumé

10-year NFL veteran

Florida Atlantic head coach Charlie Partridge

So when was the last time Wisconsin had co-defensive coordinators? When Partridge and Chris Ash led UW’s defense in 2012. The Plantation, Fla., native was fired from his head coaching position at Florida Atlantic in December after three consecutive three-win seasons. How fitting it would be if new head honcho Lane Kiffin faced Partridge and Wisconsin’s defense in September?

Partridge has connections to Wisconsin, coaching the defensive line from 2008-11 but also being co-coordinator with Ash in 2011-12. After leaving Madison following the hire of Gary Andersen, he joined Bret Bielema down in Arkansas for a year in 2013 before taking on the Owls’ program. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus noted, the former coordinator also recruits well.

One thing against Partridge, though, is that he’s known for having a 4-3 defense. After the Bielema regime moved on, the 3-4 scheme first implemented by Andersen and Aranda, then continued with Wilcox, has paid huge dividends for the Badgers.

Another thing: Partridge coached defensive lines at Wisconsin, though he spent time with linebackers at Pitt in 2007. Current position coach Inoke Breckterfield had his squad playing at a great level the past two seasons, especially during the 2016 season. All six players in the two-deep return for that group in what could be an even more impressive 2017 campaign.

Coaching experience:

2014-16: Florida Atlantic University, Head coach

2013: Arkansas, (Assistant head coach) defensive line

2011-12: Wisconsin, (Associate head coach) Co-defensive coordinator, defensive line

2008-10: Wisconsin, Defensive line and specialists

2007: Pitt, Special teams coordinator and linebackers

2006: Pitt, Special teams coordinator and defensive line

2003-05: Pitt; Defensive line

2002: Eastern Illinois, Recruiting coordinator and defensive line

2000-01: Iowa State, Director of football operations

1998-99: Iowa State, Defensive graduate assistant

1996-97: Drake, offensive graduate assistant

Appalachian State defensive coordinator Nate Woody

It’s a name many in B5Q comments sections, and one particular writer in Andrew Rosin, appear fond of. The 54-year old has coordinator experience since 2000 and has run the defense at Appalachian State since 2013.

Woody runs a 3-4 currently and would presumably keep the same scheme in Madison. In 2015, Appalachian State’s defense ranked 11th in the nation in total defense (314.5 yards per game allowed). That squad helped Woody get nominated for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s best assistant coach.

In 2016, Appalachian State allowed only 329.7 yards per contest (17th in the nation) and only 125.9 on the ground (20th in the FBS).

He’s had success in the FCS and now the FBS’s Sun Belt conference, but would it translate up to Big Ten country? Also, would he have any interest in moving to the Midwest?

Coaching experience:

2014-16.: Appalachian State (defensive coordinator/outside linebackers)

2013: Appalachian State, Defensive coordinator and inside linebackers

2000-12: Wofford, Defensive coordinator

1988-93, 1997-99: Wofford, Assistant coach

Former Minnesota defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel

As noted on a few “watch lists” or “big boards” ($), new Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck did not retain Sawvel, who last year led a defense ranked 21st in the nation in yards allowed (348.8), 14th against the run (117.8). Minnesota also finished tied for 21st in points allowed (22.1).

Sawvel held the defensive coordinator role last season after coaching Minnesota’s defensive backs and special teams from 2011-15. When looking at his résumé, he’s only coached the secondary in his college football career, which appears to be locked down by Leonhard at Wisconsin.

Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with the effort in his final game as coordinator against Washington State, when the Gophers held the Cougars to just 303 total yards—about 180 yards below their season average for 2016. That included holding Mike Leach’s passing attack to 264 yards, almost 100 less than its average.

Sawvel played at Division III power Mount Union from 1989-93.

Coaching experience:

2016: Minnesota, Defensive coordinator

2011-15: Minnesota, Defensive backs and special teams

2008-10: Northern Illinois, Defensive backs and special teams

2001-07: Southern Illinois, Defensive Backs, special teams

1999-00: Ferris State, Defensive backs, special teams

1996-99: Notre Dame, Graduate assistant

1994-95: Eastern Kentucky, Graduate assistant