UW Football: Jim Leonhard ready to take reins of Wisconsin’s defense

BY MIKE LUCAS

UWBadgers.com Senior Writer

MADISON, Wis. — After Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst weighed Jim Leonhard's interest in replacing Justin Wilcox as defensive coordinator — "Is this something you'd like to do? Is this something you'd want to do?" he asked — Leonhard reflected on how everything had fallen into place after his 10-year NFL career.

"A year ago, if you were to ask me if this was going to happen, I'd probably would have laughed at you — not knowing exactly how it was going to go and how it would work out," said Leonhard, who had no previous coaching experience prior to taking over the UW secondary last season.

"Paul brought me in and asked me if I was interested. He thought I was ready and he thought I could handle it. I was excited about the possibility and kind of wanted to see where I was at — if I really wanted to entertain the idea.

"It went a lot of places initially," Leonhard acknowledged of his thought process, "trying to decide if it was the right time and if I was ready. The actual calling of the plays and designing everything, I feel very comfortable with. It's the rest …

"It's building the relationships with the guys and the staff. It's making sure of all the details in the day-to-day (operation). It's structuring practices and meetings. It's kind of the whole big picture of it. I was just making sure I was going to be comfortable with that and the time that went along with it.

"The longer I thought about it," said Leonhard, the energy building in his voice, "the more excited I got about the possibilities and what could happen and I jumped at the opportunity."

Why is Chryst confident that Leonhard can make the jump from first-year assistant coach to coordinator?

"To me, for a coordinator, there has to be certainly a football knowledge level," Chryst said. "Jimmy has far more than just a one-year level of coaching knowledge; X's and O's, scheme knowledge. In fact, I think he has got great football schematic knowledge.

"And, then, I think a big part of coordinating is connecting. It's connecting the coaches and coming up with and coordinating the different units into a scheme. It's connecting the coaches to players. It's finding ways to connect players to players and how you play.

"It's connecting how one unit plays off the other two units. In this case, how does the defense play off of and with the offense and the special teams? Jimmy has a skill that he can connect groups of people. As a coach, teacher, I thought he'd be really good last year at this time.

"Now, I know that he's a heckuva teacher."

During the interviewing stage, Chryst worked from the inside-out by first talking with defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar and Leonhard. "In my mind, it was, 'What do you have within (the staff)?' and then, 'What's out there that would be a fit?'" he said.

"I really feel fortunate with what we have in Inoke, Tim and Jimmy. In the end, I thought if it was from within, Jimmy would be the one that I felt really good with. He said he'd always thought about it and he'd be excited about it. That tells you he has self-confidence, and I have confidence in him."

After making that determination, Chryst had a baseline to measure other candidates and eventually concluded, "I feel really good and excited about Jimmy being the next coordinator. You don't want it to come across that you don't believe in Inoke and Tim. It's quite to the contrary really."

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