Jim Leonhard, the Wisconsin Defensive Coordinator, has risen to one of the top defensive minds in the Big 10 in a short amount of time. This should come as no surprise though. Madison, WI is his home turf and Leonhard has received a first-class education in football. Leonhard started his college career as a walk-on DB for the Badgers and would leave as a legend, garnering back-to-back-to-back All-American honors (Yes, that’s a three-peat). Even though he had tremendous success as a Safety and punt returner in college, Leonhard went undrafted and was picked up by the Buffalo Bills were he played for three years.
Enter defensive guru Rex Ryan (son of 46 legend Buddy Ryan). In 2008 Ryan was the DC for the Baltimore Ravens and signed Leonhard away from Buffalo where he would start 13 of 16 games. Ryan would take him to New York (Jets) following the ’08 season where Ryan took the HC job. Leonhard would have three solid years as a starter in New York before he was let go following a knee injury. 2012-14 Leonard would sign year-long contracts and bounce around from Denver, back to Buffalo, and finally the Browns.
At the conclusion of his 10-year career, Leonhard went back to where it started in Wisconsin, asking Head Coach Pual Chryst to help with the defense. During 2015, Leonhard worked closely with current Baylor Head Coach and former LSU and Wisconsin DC, Dave Aranda. With the exit of Aranda to LSU in 2016, Leonhard joined as a DB coach under current Cal Head Coach Justin Wilcox. Leonhard would ascend to the DC position with the exit of Wilcox in 2017. The three years as DC have seen success under Leonhard, ending the 2017 season as the #5 team in Defensive Efficiency. Though there was a dip in 2018 (Wisconsin finished 8-5 and #35th in DEff), the Badgers were right back in the top 10 in DEff, finishing ninth in 2019.
With a defensive pedigree and a solid NFL career, Jim Leonhard is primed to be one of the top defensive minds going forward. Leonard’s professional mentor, Rex Ryan, is considered by many a great defensive mind along with his college mentors in Wilcox and Aranda (who just won a National Title). One area of interest is the Badgers’ ability to get off the field on 3rd Down. Wisconsin led the nation in 3rd Down Defense, only allowing 27% of 3rd Downs to be gained.
In this article, MQ will take a look at Wisconsin’s defense against Oregon’s offense highlighted by a traditional Spread offense and an NFL prospect at QB. Though Wisconsin would lose (by one point) to the Ducks, the Badgers held Oregon to 3-of-10 on 3rd Down. MQ takes a look at Leonhard’s philosophy on attacking the Ducks by highlighting five of those stops.
Under Leonhard, the Badgers have been able to get off the field on 3rd Downs. As stated, in 2019 Wisconsin was tops in the land, holding opponents to 27% efficiency. 2018 was a down year overall for the Badgers, but in 2017 (under Wilcox), Leonhard’s first year as a full-time DB coach, the Badgers finished in at #5 in the nation on 3rd Down with 29% efficiency. The 2016 Aranda led Badgers to finish 4th at 27.9%. Needless to say, Leonhard has received a masterclass on stopping people on 3rd Down.
Similar to Aranda, Leonhard attacks offenses in a multitude of fronts, but not exotically like some other DCs. The Badgers opted to attack the Ducks from three main front structures: Jet (5s and 3s), Mug (ILBs in “A”), and Bear (Jet + Mike mugged on the center). Wisconsin runs a base 3-4 with two EDGE players as overhangs. EDGE is the “new” term for hybrid OLB/DEs. The boundary EDGE should be able to at least zone over the RB or cut the single WR. The field EDGE is a little more athletic but still tasked with being the primary force. This is similar to what Georgia is doing in their “Base” under Kirby Smart and other 3-4 hybrid DCs around the country.
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