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

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All aboard the Keeanu Benton nickel scheme hype train!

Wisconsin v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph were made available to us via Zoom. The two coordinators touched on almost all of the position groups as well as this week’s opponent, the Northwestern Wildcats.

Here are a few highlights from their media availability:

Rudolph opened by discussing the Wildcat defense and the difficulty in going up against it:

“They’re always one of the top defenses across the board, year in and year out, and they really understand their scheme. I think by understanding their scheme, they do a good job of making adjustments within the game. This year, they’ve done a tremendous job of stopping the run, and it starts with the guys up front, they do a good job of eating up alignment and freeing up the linebackers. And the linebackers are an experienced group. They’re smart, they’ve played a long time. They’re really good players and they do a good job of creating fits for the safeties to make space and I think the combination of all that makes them really good against the run. And then when people throw on them they’ve done a great job of tackling and creating interceptions. So there is quite a challenge.”

Coach Rudolph also discussed the jet sweeps that found so much success against Michigan last week:

“I think in the game we thought that the package was good from a run and pass game perspective. And the edge runs got rolling early, and I really liked how the guys were running it. I thought they improved dramatically from week one when we played. I thought they did a great job- the receivers, as well as tight ends and linemen blocking on the perimeter were making it work and making it go, so it became a nice play to mix into the offense.”

The sixth year offensive coordinator also spoke about Hayden Rucci’s integration into the offense:

“Yeah, I think with Hayden the thing that got him on the field was his physical nature. He was physical, he was tough. And then when the ball came to him, he made plays throughout practice. So it was like, ‘okay, this guy’s physical and he’s tough.’ But then boom, when we need him in the pass game, he makes plays. But the battle of any young player is consistency. And that’s what earns your place on the field and your role. So we love where he’s at, and we keep squeezing him to keep being consistent.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard opened his time by discussing how the pass rush has developed early on in the year:

“Yeah, I thought we were a little bit sloppy last game, we had some pressures that could have hit that that we didn’t execute as well. So there are definitely some things we need to clean up. Going forward I like the group that we have. I think we do have some guys that are able to get after the quarterback, some of the pressures we do are just straight four man pass rush, so we definitely have to knock some rust off. We did not like how we came out of that game, we left some pressure on the table. But I like our plan going forward. I think we got matchups we like this week, and hopefully we can create some pressure on a quarterback that’s playing really well.”

Leonhard also praised the steps Scott Nelson, and the safety unit as a whole, has taken this season:

“Obviously, he’s had a crazy year. Going back I thought he was really ready to take that next step last year, you know, learning a lot from playing that redshirt freshman year. And you know, there were so many things going through camp where you saw him take it to the next level. And then obviously that season got cut extremely short, only playing a handful of snaps, so I was really excited to get him back this season. And you saw the impact that he can have, great instincts as a safety which is huge, and he communicates really well on the back end for us. He adds a different dimension to that group. I love the depth we have, we have some young cats that have played just a handful of snaps that I’m really, really excited about, on top of Scott, Eric Burrell, and Collin [Wilder] even though they’re playing the majority of snaps. So it’s a deep group. There’s a number of guys that provide just different skill sets. And I’m excited going forward with that group.”

On the defensive line, Leonhard praised the experience and ability the group brings as well as how they fit into the general defensive scheme:

“We do like to get them more involved. It’s a group that we want to attack with more, and the mentality of that group at times in the past was just ‘we do our job, we don’t get stats, let these guys around us make plays’ but with the talent and experience that we have, we’re more than that. You’re allowed to make plays within this game, you’re allowed to win matchups and do more. And there’s more opportunities that we’re trying to free them up to be the aggressor in. With the experience, the talent that we have, there’s depth, and we’re activating them a little bit more than maybe we have in the past. And I’m excited going forward, they’ve done some really good things up to this point and I’m anticipating more of the same as the season progresses which will just make this defense even more flexible.”

The defensive coordinator finally discussed the possibility of Keeanu Benton getting reps in a nickel system:

“Yeah, we’ve had him in there at times. He’s gonna continue to grow into that role, obviously, it’s just different spacing. It’s kind of a different mentality, with a little bit more movement. Aside from timing and footwork you’re working more lateral rather than straight ahead like he does that knows. So it’s just going to continue to make him better in all aspects of the game. And as he continues to get better at that, you’re just going to see any little holes he has in his game just continue to disappear.