Since Dave Aranda came to Wisconsin in 2013 and switched the Badgers to a 3-4 base defense, the unit has been among the country’s best statistically.
Aranda was in Madison for three years before leaving for LSU and a bigger paycheck. Then Justin Wilcox came from USC and coordinated the defense in 2016. When he left for the head coaching job at California, Paul Chryst turned to his least-tenured assistant and handed Jim Leonhard the keys to a defense that had a lot of senior leadership returning in 2017.
So far, so good for the first-time defensive coordinator.
Leonhard’s defense has allowed only 14 second-half points this season—all of them coming against Northwestern late in Saturday’s 33–24 win. Every coach has their own personality and style. Aranda was known for his aggressive defensive schemes while Wilcox was pretty, for lack of a better term, plain (yet successful) in his style. Leonhard, however, might even be more aggressive than Aranda.
Leonhard, who played in the NFL under the Rex Ryan-Mike Pettine-Jim O’Neal defensive tree, has brought that exotic, aggressive style to Madison.
“I think it’s cool,” said T.J. Edwards. “You have a coach who wants to see his players go get it, he doesn’t want us to sit back, or get passed all over.”
The Badgers only had eight sacks in the first three games of the season combined, but feasted for eight against the Wildcats.
“Coach Leonhard’s football IQ is vast, but it’s awesome—some of the stuff he dials up, we know he’s going to put us in a position for us to have some success,” said linebacker Ryan Connelly.
While the linebackers are generally featured in this defense, much of the grunt work that doesn’t end up on the stat sheet is done by the defensive line.
“We take pride in that, we can take a guy with us, and free someone up,” said Alec James when talking about stunts on the defensive line. “[Leonhard] puts us in a lot of new spots we haven’t been in, but we still have to do our jobs.”
Redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk has become a major chess piece in this front seven, and he spoke about playing in Leonhard’s defense as a defensive lineman.
“There are a lot more chances for us to make plays,” Loudermilk said. “He emphasizes on us getting 1-on-1s. Getting 1-on-1s is always exciting—I always like when it’s overloaded and we’re able to get a 1-on-1 situation. It’s our job to win.”
Senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley is one of the biggest beneficiaries from this defense.
“Our coaches do a heck of a job dialing up pressures, and [Leonhard] trusts everyone that when we get a 1-on-1, we’re going to win it.”
Dooley also expanded on affecting the mindset of the opposing quarterback: “If you get after the quarterback early, it ruins their timing, and he knows in the back of his mind that he’s got to get the ball out early.”
However, everything that’s done up front is negated if the back end doesn’t hold up, something veteran secondary members Derrick Tindal and D’Cota Dixon take very seriously.
Tindal spoke about the trust Leonhard puts in the secondary: “For our coaches to know that we can depend on our DB’s, it helps us because we know the coaches put it out there for us, we’ve got to get it done. Coach trusts us a lot, and as long as he trusts us, we’ll be alright.”
Dixon has been one of the high spots for the defense to this point, leading the Badgers against Northwestern with 12 tackles and a sack. He is in a position to take advantage of the aggressive nature of this defense.
“It helps a ton; it felt like there were times we were covering for 10 seconds last year,” Dixson said. “Whenever we’re able to get pressure on the quarterback, it rattles him, and as long as we trust in our technique and trust in our pressures, we’ll have success.”
Dixon has been making plays behind or near the line of scrimmage all year. That versatility helps the defense be able to do a lot of different things.
This defense has already showed it has the potential to be special, maybe the best Wisconsin has seen. Expect to see the unit expand more and more as the season progresses, but early returns are encouraging from the 34-year-old defensive coordinator.