The Wisconsin Badgers experienced a significant change this offseason when interim head coach Jim Leonhard wasn't retained, as he moved on from the school where he played college football and where he had coached for seven years.
While Leonhard had served as the defensive coordinator since 2017, he was primarily involved with the safeties, as his expertise was greatly appreciated by the players in the room.
However, with the coaching change to head coach Luke Fickell, the safeties in the room have now gotten accustomed to well-respected safeties coach Colin Hitschler, who served as the co-defensive coordinator with Mike Tressel a season ago.
How have the Badgers’ safeties looked to improve with a new face in the building and a new defensive system?
Emerging candidate Austin Brown, who has seen some reps with the first-team defense in three-safety looks shared how the change has been well-received in the locker room over the offseason, sharing the added intensity of everything.
“I think [the offseason] has been great, honestly. Everything’s intensified. Everything, within meetings, lifting, practice, the [intensity] has definitely been increased by a lot,” Brown said. “But, I think it’s going to be good for us for sure. It gives us a feel for the coaches and what they expect and the strength staff as well. So, I think it’s been good for us.”
As for Hitschler himself, Brown shared the differences and similarities between his two position coaches, pointing out the methods of addressing mistakes and the little details.
“Coach Leonhard, he wasn’t as vocal. If you messed up, he’d get pissed and maybe yell or whatever. Coach Hitsch is definitely more of a yeller, but it’s just like the difference in coaching or whatever. But no, Coach Leonhard was more like on vision, and we worked on technique a lot, but a lot of it was reading the quarterback, getting your read you got to take and then get back to the quarterback.”
While Leonhard fixated on safety vision, Hitschler focused on the technical aspect of the position in regard to footwork.
“A lot more stuff is more technical now, I feel like. Just small adjustments. Don’t get too much depth here, don’t back up here, break off this foot here, not this foot. It’s a lot more technical, I would say, but yeah, the similarities, they’re both great-minded, they’re very smart. They make us think a lot. They always test us with the meetings, and I feel like that helps on the field. You get a better perspective of the whole defense,” Brown said.
Safety Kamo’i Latu had a similar response to the coaching change, sharing how Hitschler harps on the small details, which has improved their games.
“I feel like it’s great. Coach Hitsch bugs on the small, minor details, which is great because, not that we were missing that last season, it’s just getting that thing in our head and we’re just thinking about what can we do, what small things can we do to lead up to big things and for us to be great,” Latu said.
To improve this offseason, Latu has spent significant time with Hitschler on the smaller details, which in return has even helped him be more physical as a player.
“Yeah, [to improve on discipline], I’ve just been meeting with Coach Hitch almost every day, and just him harping on the small, minor details, it helps me be even more physical to put myself in better positions to make better plays.”
As for the differences between the two coaches, Latu shared a similar comparison to Brown, talking about their methods and the little details.
“Probably say Coach Leonhard is laid back guy. Coach Hitsch, he’s not [a yeller], but he’s yelling for the right reason. He just wants us to focus on the minor details. And Coach Leonhard, he knew we would focus on minor details, but Coach Hitsch just harps on it a lot more.”
Schematically, Latu pointed out how some of defensive coordinator Mike Tressel’s playcalls have resembled in the NFL, which has added motivation for the team in their aspirations to reach the next level.
“It helps our knowledge as a defense and as defensive schemes to expand, Latu said. “Sometimes when we watch NFL film, we see like, some of our plays are [happening] in the NFL. And it just gives us a lot of motivation and a lot of trust in our coaches that they know what they’re doing.”
What’s changed, specifically in the safety room, to adjust to some of those playcalls? It’s been easier roles, both for the cornerbacks and the safeties, allowing them to focus on a certain job.
“This year, I wouldn’t say we got specific roles, but some guys play on the left side and some guys play on the right side. So, it just helps us focus on our job a little bit more than just playing ball.”
Leonhard was a fantastic coach for the Badgers during his tenure here, but Hitschler has seemed to make his mark early on with the talented safety room, while the scheme seems to have players operating more comfortably in their roles.
However, there are still scheme similarities with the three-safety looks that’ve placed Hunter Wohler near the box, while Kamoi Latu and either Travian Blaylock or Austin Brown have maneuvered the backend with the first-team defense.