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Wisconsin football: Jim Leonhard and Joe Rudolph speak ahead of Illinois game

The two coordinators stressed that they have a bunch of new faces ready to fill in for the talent they lost from last season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Michigan at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph were made available to us, the unwashed media, via Zoom. The two coordinators touched on almost all of the position groups and both seem happy to be back to some semblance of normalcy after an extremely abnormal offseason.

Here are a few highlights from their media availability:

Rudolph opened with some discussion of the offensive line. He spoke about returning senior guard Jon Dietzen, who was named starter in Sunday’s depth chart release:

“He’s full to go. He’s been as ready to go as anyone, he’s played as good as anyone, so I anticipate him rolling.”

Regarding the tight ends, Rudolph mentioned that this year’s unit offers a particular strength in depth that last year’s team may have lacked:

“We knew what we had in Ferg. But we didn’t have depth behind him. I think we got that now. Hayden Rucci has really stepped up and done a good job wiring in a role for himself there. And I’m excited to get guys back from injury, that were a little banged up in Jaylan Franklin and Clay Cundiff. Those guys give you some really good depth. And I’ll say this, Eschenbach’s done a good job backing up Ferg in some of the 11 packages as well.”

Regarding this week’s opponent Illinois, the sixth year offensive coordinator stressed how strong the Fighting Illini are in creating turnovers:

“They tackle, putting their face right on the football, and they create separation. They’re very aware of stripping the ball. They created 18 fumbles last year, and recovered an amazing 16 of them. They have a nose for that. They know their scheme well, how to play off of it.”

When asked about where replacements for the explosiveness of departed offensive talents such as Quintez Cephus and Jonathan Taylor would come from, Rudolph expressed confidence that a relatively inexperienced Badger backfield and receiving corps was up to the task:

“I’m excited for the guys we have this year. I’m excited for guys to step up and earn roles. It’s a great group of guys.”

On new starting quarterback Graham Mertz, Rudolph was clear in touting how much the redshirt freshman has grown with the increased first team reps he’s received in recent weeks:

“You want him to be confident. And he’s shown that. He’s always worked hard and been attentive to detail but you can see in his reps his 1-2 is there. And that’s exciting for us. He’s shown us a lot of things. Our job is to put a good package around him.”

Senior fullback Mason Stokke is projected to have an expanded role in the offense in 2020, which Rudolph confirmed:

“We protected him a lot a year ago. He wants to do what he does best, get in there and pop open holes, be a physical player for us. We rely on him as a leader, and we know he can step into different roles when needed.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard opened his time by discussing sophomore linebacker Leo Chenal, and the larger role he could play this year:

“Obviously, from a physical standpoint, he’s impressive. He’s a big strong kid that can run, who just continues to get more and more comfortable in our defense, making calls, getting people lined up in front of him. We’re excited.”

Leonhard praised sophomore nose tackle Keeanu Benton, who returns to the starting lineup after a strong freshman campaign:

“We feel like Keeanu has taken a big step forward. We saw the big play ability, he’s a powerful, explosive kid. We’re asking him to be a little more consistent, but we still want him to be a force in there, changing games. It’s going to be a fine balance. We like where he’s at. We knew last year we had something special with him last year, and we’re just going to keep asking him to grow.”

Much like Rudolph, Leonhard lamented the loss of dynamic, game breaking talent like Zack Baun and Chris Orr, but wasn’t concerned with his group’s ability to step up.

“We’re realistic, we can’t ask for a one-to-one swap in production, but we’ll find other ways to do it. We feel like we have guys who can step into those roles and create plays and be dynamic. It may look different, but I’m on the search to put the guys in the best positions to be dynamic and make plays. But I love the group, and I love the depth we have.”

Leonhard did say that he aspires for this year’s defense to be an improvement over their predecessors in creating turnovers, particularly interceptions:

“I want to be better this year in consistency in taking the ball away. I thought there were times last year where we missed chances. I’m asking this group to be consistent, week in and week out. With the depth and experience we have on the back end, we want consistency in taking the ball away.”

At defensive back, Leonhard mentioned Rachad Wildgoose has stood out, due to his flexibility in positioning:

“I think the thing Rachad has, different from the rest, is his versatility, his ability to lineup in the slot and out wide. It’s been really fun to coach, really fun to watch, and he’s playing with that edge, playing with that confidence. We can move him around to put us in the best position.”

Leonhard closed by discussing how Illinois’ ability to put the Badgers defense back on the field on short notice through turnovers affected their planning and mindset:

“I think overall we’ve handled it pretty well, but once we get into the game you have to be perfect. As a defense, we have to accept that challenge. If something bad happens, we have to put the fire out. Last year, it hit that perfect storm, a couple turnovers and a couple big plays, they hung around and came back and beat us. As a defense, when your number’s called, you gotta rise up, make plays, and close games out. That wasn’t the case last year at times, and that’s our challenge.”

We will have more press conference coverage after head coach Paul Chryst’s availability on Wednesday morning and then again after the game on Friday night.