Four 2019 signees came to Madison in January as mid-year enrollees, hoping to take advantage of the Wisconsin Badgers spring football practices that could allow them to contribute earlier.
Quarterback Graham Mertz, known nationally for his Elite 11, The Opening Finals and All-American Bowl MVP honors before arriving at UW, shined during particular practices open to the media and could be a contender for the starting job come fall camp.
However, fellow true freshman and inside linebacker Leo Chenal showcased his physical skill set when tackling his teammates and delivering highlights in pass coverage. From B5Q’s notes in sessions open to reporters, Chenal intercepted three passes, including two against Mertz.
“Oh geez,” Chenal said after Wisconsin’s last spring practice on April 26. “He’s a really talented quarterback so intercepting any talented quarterback really feels good. I just can’t wait to like actually do it against our enemy teams.”
Though Chenal admitted he has much to learn as a college inside linebacker, he exhibited signs of playmaking abilities that could help him earn reps, at the very least, in fall camp later this summer.
After claiming first-team all-state (small school) honors from the WFCA, along with WFCA small school offensive and defensive player of the year selections as a senior last fall, Chenal showed the ability to not just hang with his Badger teammates but also make plays.
The first thing that pops out about Chenal is—for a kid that should be a high school senior this spring—his physical nature and strength. Listed at 6’2 and 239 pounds already, he posted a video prior to practices of him bench pressing 225 pounds 32 times.
“Oh that boy’s strong, man. He’s strong.” fellow linebacker Chris Orr said on April 2. “He’s strong, but he’s definitely making some strides. I’m excited to see how he progresses from now all the way to fall camp and the season, so definitely impressive.”
Orr’s comments were made during the second week of practice. Through most of spring ball, it appeared that Chenal worked alongside walk-on Mike Maskalunas as the second duo up at the inside linebacker position behind Orr and sophomore Jack Sanborn.
At the end of spring ball, Chenal mentioned he felt like he could be physically ready but also acknowledged there is a lot to take in.
“When I first came in, I’m like ‘OK, these guys are pretty big, a lot bigger than I’m used to, but maybe I can hold my own,’” Chenal said. “It’s a lot faster, guys are a lot faster, guys are a lot bigger. I think I’m doing OK physically. It’s just there’s so much you got to transfer. You got to have not only the mindset and all the learning, like the playbook, but you also have to have the technique, because all the strength and speed you have doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the proper technique and form and all that.”
The mental aspect of the college game in terms of learning the playbook, understanding his fits as a inside linebacker and working on technique with his hands, are just some of the adjustments Chenal has had, and will have to continue, to make.
“I got to use my hands a lot better because in high school, I could literally just like run into guys with my shoulder, knock them over and get the ball,” Chenal said. “This, I got to use my hands and just being confident in the play—that’s a huge deal because if you’re 100 percent confident in what you’re doing, you can go ‘Boom’ right to your spot. You go right to the ball.
“But when you’re struggling with the playbook, so you’re like, ‘OK where’s my gap? Where’s my gap, where do I have to go?’ Then you like hesitate, so that’s really been a struggle for me. I mean I think I’ll be able to overcome it in these next coming months but it’s just learning the playbook. Once you get it, it’s like ‘Boom,’ you get to the ball. It’s like a whole another step.”
If you’re not, as Chenal described, “100 percent confident” then the young ‘backer stated that any hesitation could result in a 300-plus pound offensive lineman in your face with unsatisfactory results.
“Even if you don’t think you’re 100 percent right, you got to get over to a certain spot or else you’re just going to get caught behind and mostly likely pancaked,” Chenal said.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said Chenal “physically, is very impressive” with this “strength, the speed, the way he moves,” but also called out how he is adjusting to, and picking up on, Wisconsin’s scheme.
“I’ve been most impressed with how he’s picked up the defense,” Leonhard said on April 16. “He has mistakes but that’s when the physicality sometimes comes into play. Him being here this spring is very big for his development, so it’s awesome to get him reps and really push him.
“He’s embraced the work, he’s embraced the meetings, doing extra. He’s a kid that wants more all the time, so it’s really fun to get him in the program early, and we’re excited about seeing where he can get come the fall.”
Also helping with the transition to the college game is his brother, fullback John Chenal. The sophomore walk-on saw plenty of reps in the offensive backfield towards the end of spring practices with Mason Stokke missing some action due to injury. Like his younger brother, he appeared to put together a decent resumé in the practices open to the media.
In what became a titanic clash of siblings, the two also battled on the field at certain points during spring ball.
“It’s really fun having a brother down here. We hang out all the team,” Leo said. “In practice, all the coaches are wanting us to like, ‘Boom,’ go at each other and all the tackling competitions going at each other. It’s really nice, even though we’re on the opposite sides of the ball, he’s still guiding me, giving advice as much as he can. He’s just giving me a boost of confidence, really helping my game I guess.
“It’s really fun. Like we’re playing against each other, just going at each other, seeing who’s stopping who, and it’s pretty fun.”
Update, May 7: Chenal appears to have had three interceptions in practices open to the media, not two (we found the third in our notes!).