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Wisconsin names DBs coach Jim Leonhard defensive coordinator

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After one year as an assistant, the former 10-year NFL vet takes over the Badgers’ defense.

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After only one year as a college football assistant coach, former Wisconsin walk-on, captain and All-American Jim Leonhard will take over his alma mater’s defense.

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst officially named Leonhard the Badgers’ defensive coordinator on Thursday, replacing Justin Wilcox after he left Madison to become head coach at Cal.

The 34-year old Leonhard returned to Madison last season as the secondary coach after a 10-year career in the NFL, and the move by Chryst immediately paid dividends. Wisconsin’s defensive backs, once considered a huge question mark heading into the 2016 season with three starters departing from the year prior, played extremely well and contributed to 16 of the team’s 22 interceptions. That position group also helped the defense rank 10th in the FBS in passing efficiency defense (106.9).

Wisconsin’s defense ranked among the top 10 in the nation in some major categories, including scoring defense (fourth, 15.6 points per game), total defense (seventh, 301.4 yards per game) and rushing defense (third, 98.8 yards per game).

Cornerback Sojourn Shelton received first-team All-Big Ten honors in his senior season, registering four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. Safeties Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon combined for nine interceptions under the guise of Leonhard.

Jim Leonhard talks with the media on National Signing Day

The Tony, Wis., native was inducted into the UW Athletics Hall of Fame in 2015 after a storied college career with the Badgers. He exploded onto the scene in 2002 as a true sophomore, intercepting 11 passes that season to lead the nation. He’s a three-time All-American, and his 21 career interceptions still have him tied for the school record with cornerback Jamar Fletcher.

Leonhard also holds Wisconsin’s single-season record for punt return yardage.

B5Q discussed Leonhard’s resume for defensive coordinator after Wilcox’s departure:

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.

Wisconsin still needs to hire an inside linebackers coach with Wilcox leaving, and it remains to be seen how Leonhard’s hire will affect the status of outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar.

Tibesar, a former defensive coordinator at Purdue and Kansas State, was reported to be the frontrunner before Wilcox was hired last year. He mentored Joe Schobert, Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt to all-conference honors the past two seasons while also developing Garret Dooley and Zack Baun last season into solid performers. He will have to do the same in 2017 with a position group that has a lack of game experience.

Here’s the official release from Wisconsin announcing Leonhard’s promotion:

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin’s new defensive coordinator is a familiar face.

Head coach Paul Chryst on Thursday announced that he has filled the position with the hire of Jim Leonhard, the former Badgers safety and three-time All-American who just completed his first season as UW’s defensive backs coach.

Leonhard’s impact on the Badgers’ secondary was immediate. His unit was instrumental in the Badgers grabbing 22 interceptions, a total that ranked second in the FBS and marked UW’s highest output since 2002, when Leonhard himself recorded a school-record 11 of UW’s 22 picks.

The secondary contributed to an overall effort that saw the Badgers finish the season ranked No. 4 nationally in scoring defense (15.6 points per game), No. 7 in total defense (301.4 yards per game), No. 3 in rushing defense (98.8 yards per game) and No. 10 in passing efficiency defense (106.9).

Under Leonhard’s tutelage, senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton was named first-team All-Big Ten for a season in which he recorded four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. Senior safety Leo Musso, the Badgers’ MVP, finished with a team-high five picks, while fellow safety D’Cota Dixon grabbed four.

Leonhard, 34, replaces Justin Wilcox, who departed Madison to become head coach at California. Leonhard’s hire gives the Badgers the distinction of having alumni filling the roles of head coach, defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator (Joe Rudolph).

A 2015 inductee into the UW Athletics Hall of Fame, Leonhard arrived on campus in 2001 as an unheralded, 5-foot-8 walk-on and left four years later as a three-time first-team All-American. He played in every game of his four-year career, including each of the last 39 as a starting safety, en route to becoming one of the best defensive players in school history.

He matched UW’s school record with 21 interceptions in his career, the fourth-most in Big Ten history, and finished with 50 passes defended -- 25 of which came during his breakout sophomore season in 2002. His nation-leading 11 interceptions that year tied the Big Ten’s single-season record. That performance led to Leonhard becoming the first sophomore to be named Wisconsin’s team MVP since 1947.

Also an accomplished returner, Leonhard broke the Badgers’ single-season punt return yardage record twice and finished his career as the Big Ten’s all-time leader in punt return yards, with 1,347.

In addition to his three All-America nods and three first-team All-Big Ten honors, Leonhard was twice named a CoSIDA Academic All-America selection and also was a recipient of the National Football Foundation Postgraduate Scholarship.