Wisconsin Badgers head coach Jim Leonhard spoke to reporters on Thursday via conference call, providing some last updates before the team faces off against the 5-2 Purdue Boilermakers at Camp Randall Stadium this week.
In his first game as a head coach at Camp Randall Stadium, Leonhard is excited for the challenge that Purdue provides, believing that his team will be prepared after the disappointing finish to last weekend’s 34-28 double overtime loss to the Michigan State Spartans.
“I’m excited to get back into Camp Randall Stadium this week and play a very solid Purdue team. [They’re] playing extremely well at this time and finding different ways to win and executing at a high level,” said Leonhard. “I’m very excited for the challenge in front of this team. I think it’s been a great week of prep. Our guys were able to put a rough finish to that last week behind them and hopefully are ready to accept the challenge of the week.”
While it will be his first game at home in his new role, Leonhard hasn’t thought about the emotions that will come from running out of the tunnel with his team, although he’s excited for the time and understands the current state of the team.
“[Running out of the tunnel is] not something I’ve thought of. [It’s] not high on my list of priorities. I’m excited. It’s an opportunity that I’ve thought about before, obviously, but I’m excited to run out that tunnel with our guys and go battle. I think our guys have to understand the feeling in the stadium this week. I think there’s going to be some fans that are a little skeptical and we’ve played inconsistent enough that we have to show who we’re going to be. I think the players understand that we have to create that excitement early [and] we have to have great energy and great execution early in the game.”
When asked about the biggest advice he’d received, Leonhard mentioned the importance of authenticity as a person in day-to-day operations, which has been his motto thus far.
“Coming in without the experience, the advice that I took from everyone that I trusted was: be you and do it your way. As far as your personality, how you communicate, the relationships you build, the way you challenge players and challenge coaches around you, the main advice that I got coming into coaching was make sure you’re genuine and authentic to what your beliefs are. To me, that worked. That worked from the beginning.”
With two weeks as the head coach under his belt, Leonhard believes that nothing has changed with his approach, as he continues to be himself, while gauging the room of what’s needed during the moment.
Stepping into this role, I didn’t think anything had to change,” Leonhard said. “I’m very honest and blunt and straightforward with [the players]. I’m going to tell them how it is. I don’t prepare many things talking in front of them. It is speaking from the heart. Not that I don’t have messages that I feel like I want to get across, but to me, it’s what do I think this team needs [and what] do I think our coaches need in the moment.”
Currently, Wisconsin has a vacant coaching spot on Leonhard’s staff, which the interim head coach attributed to the recruiting process and the value of the recruiting staff.
“With the 10th spot, I wanted to get through the bye week because there’s a huge recruiting piece that gets filled with that tenth role, and having not filled that, we can use our recruiting staff. We’re going to be on the road here during our bye week and I thought that was really the No. 1 reason to hold on it, because that’s whose had the most contact with our recruits,” Leonhard said. “From a communication standpoint, we felt very confident with our gameday responsibilities. That spot will get filled [in the near future], but we wanted to get through our bye week before we did that.”
However, there has been a familiar face in the building recently as former Badgers safety Collin Wilder has been in the locker room, providing the team with a respected leader as they try and right the ship under new representation.
“Collin Wilder is a guy who you just want to have around your players. Tremendous leader. Very consistent with his approach,” Leonhard said. “He has respect in that locker room with a number of guys who played with him. It’s always amazing when you get former players around that you trust to push the right message [and] keep the [players] focused and keep them together.”
Focusing on this weekend’s matchup, Leonhard was asked about Purdue’s stingy run defense and the former defensive coordinator gave credit to his opponent for their aggressiveness as a reason why they’ve been successful thus far.
“They’re aggressive. They’re trying to force teams to play on their terms. If you’re going to be stubborn, they’re going to attack and try to create TFLs and get you behind the sticks. They’re playing consistent, they’re tackling well, and they’re playing a little bit more aggressive than they have been in the past.”
With the recent injury to starter Isaiah Mullens that has sidelined him for several weeks, reserve defensive end James Thompson Jr. has stepped in as a full-time starter opposite of Keeanu Benton and Rodas Johnson.
Leonhard raved about Thompson’s progress from his early time at Wisconsin to the strides he made in the offseason.
“James is a guy we’re very excited about in this program. You look even going back to 2020: he cracked the two-deep [and] was going to start to have a significantly bigger role back then and then his first game playing, he got an injury. Last year, we had good depth at the position and just working back off a pretty big injury, you saw him grow as the season went on and get more comfortable with who he was and where his body was at and got on the field more for us. We were really excited about what he was able to do this offseason, knowing that he was going to be a huge piece on this defense.”
Leonhard believes that Thompson Jr. will continue to grow as a player with additional reps, but liked the aggressiveness and quickness that the defensive end possesses at his 6’7 frame.
“Obviously, with Isaiah Mullens getting hurt, [it] throws him into that role full-time and he’s done a great job. [He] played very fast [and] aggressive last week [and] made some big plays running some things down on the edge. Very impressive for a man his size to be able to move the way he does. Going to continue to play more consistent as he gets reps and more feel for the game on gameday [with] how things change, but I’m very excited with his progress so far this season and what he’s done early in his career.”
On the injury front, the Badgers are getting some good news against the Boilermakers, as several players are expected to be available this week, according to Leonhard.
“I believe we’ll have Riley Mahlman available this week for the first time in a while, which’ll be a huge help. Tyler Beach, I believe, is getting more healthy as well. We kind of limited him to that extra lineman role last week, knowing he was going to be on a pitch count, but believe he’ll be available for more snaps as well. On the defensive side, Cedrick Dort has been cleared from his concussion. Jake Chaney will be available this week. Jackson [Acker], I believe, will be available for the offense. But, getting some bodies back, which we need, [will] help create some depth on gameday.”
Last weekend, the Badgers were ravaged by injuries on both front, but the additional reinforcements may light a spark at a much-needed time in the season.
Stay tuned for the gameday updates tomorrow!