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Jim Leonhard discusses opportunities, Mike Pettine’s influence on Wisconsin defense

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The former walk-on turned coordinator spoke on Wilde and Tausch on Wednesday

NCAA Football: Wisconsin Badgers-Training Camp Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY NETWORK

Earlier on Wednesday, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard joined ESPN Wisconsin’s “Wilde and Tausch” morning radio show after reports surfaced that the Green Bay Packers will hire his former coach Mike Pettine as the defensive coordinator.

Since bowl week, questions about opportunities beyond what is in Madison have come to light with reports Florida State and new head coach Willie Taggart wanting Leonhard to potentially come to Tallahassee. ESPN Wisconsin’s Jason Wilde asked towards the end of the interview if coaching in the NFL is “in his radar” at some point or if he would like to remain in college football.

According to Leonhard, he said it was “hard to say:”

“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. Thirteen wins this year has never been done in school history is a pretty awesome accomplishment for these guys, and obviously, just want to push it here.

“As far as the NFL, I don’t really know. Haven’t thought about it too much. Had conversations with a lot of people here. Outside of the teams you mentioned, I did receive a lot of attention. I’m happy being at Wisconsin right now, but I’m also going to listen and see what’s out there and see the opportunities that come my way. That doesn’t change the fact of how I feel about this place, so glad to be in the position I am. Did not necessarily think things would be moving this fast as far as the opportunities, so just kind of taking it day-by-day and enjoying the process.”

Again, not much change from what he said back on Dec. 29 during Orange Bowl preparation.

The whole interview is a must listen for those in the large Venn Diagram who cheer for both the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin Badgers.

Discussion also revolved about how Pettine—who Leonhard, as a 10-year NFL veteran, saw jump from a position coach in Baltimore to a defensive coordinator for the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills to later a head coach for the Cleveland Browns—influenced the former walk-on now turned assistant coach.

“A lot. That whole group of guys whether it was Rex, Pettine, Jim O’Neil, I was around them six years, so to me, it’s the flexibility. Just understanding week-to-week, depending on injuries or match-ups, your playmakers are going to change. Enough creativity, obviously in college it’s a little bit different than the NFL, just to have enough creativity to create some match-ups and find ways to help guys make plays, so I take a lot of credit, a lot of my thought process in how I approach the game comes from these guys.”

Former Wisconsin walk-on turned longtime NFL veteran and now budding media superstar Mark Tauscher asked Leonhard about his biggest adjustment from position coach to defensive coordinator and his growth from the first year to second:

“I’ve learned a lot, and Tausch can speak to this as a player, I think you grow so much when you are in the same system or in the same role from one year to the next and have a chance to kind of sit back. In season, you just go. You’re going and don’t have as much time to kind of reflect on things as you would like. So to me, I’m excited for this offseason, just fired up to just go back and kind of learn all the lessons that I need to. I learned a ton throughout the course of the season and grew and really leaned on the coaches we had, and we had a great staff, so [I] leaned on them to help get through certain situations and now it’s time to reflect back and get better.”

Tauscher also asked about Leonhard’s mindset when looking at an opposing offensive line or offense and what is he looking for in setting a gameplan:

“Some of it is protection schemes and if they’re consistent in the schemes that they're using, you try to attack it and create pressure. Then there is an aspect of the individual. You’re trying to find the weakest link, you’re trying to find maybe there’s a certain guy that they will put one-on-one in a lot of situations and trying to take advantage of that. There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s not rocket science but there is some thinking involved, and having a guy like [outside linebackers coach] Tim Tibesar, [defensive line coach] Inoke Breckterfield—guys who were experienced not only in college football but experienced in this system and going back to Dave Aranda and [Justin] Wilcox and then myself—understood what we do well and how we attack certain schemes. Obviously, we had a good amount of success this year doing it.”

Leonhard also spoke about inside linebacker T.J. Edwards returning for his redshirt senior season and expectations from his vantage point for next season:

“Obviously, experience at the college level is huge. There’s just certain things you could do with a three- and a four-year starter that you wouldn’t do with a freshman or a sophomore. Getting a guy like T.J., who is the leader—he’s calling the defenses, he’s making adjustments—having a guy like that is huge. We lose a lot of production and a lot of talent. The D-Line was always a little bit under the radar but the majority of those guys started four years, so some big time pieces to fill.

Secondary-wise, we lose a ton as well. Losing three starters again just like we did last year. There’s a lot of young guys that I like, that I think are ready to take the next step, but it has to happen, and it has to happen this offseason.”

And yes, the last question revolved around head coach Paul Chryst and his now famous thoughts on Miami’s Turnover Chain during Wisconsin’s 34-24 Orange Bowl win:

“I think it was pretty great. Once again, Paul’s one of those guys that you don’t get much from in the media. You guys probably argue you don’t necessarily love his approach, but you don’t see the personality he has a whole lot, and obviously you saw a little bit more personality come out with that comment.”