MADISON, Wis. — At Wisconsin practices, Jim Leonhard can often be found standing by himself about 15 or 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage, bent over at the waist with hands on knees while surveying the defense.
It was as if he was playing safety again in the NFL, getting ready to defend against a deep ball. But Leonhard traded in his helmet for a coach’s whistle last year to become the Badgers’ defensive backs coach.
It worked out so well at his alma mater that Leonhard was promoted to defensive coordinator this offseason. He will be calling the plays for what is expected to be one of the Big Ten’s top defenses again when the ninth-ranked Badgers open the season on Friday at home against Utah State.
“As a coach, I’ve got to try to see as much as I can so I can help those guys out and get eyes on as many (players) as possible,” Leonhard said about his perch during practice. “It helps me see things a little better.”
Seeing the whole field to try to stay a step ahead of the offense, just like when he was a player.
Known for his football IQ and instinctive play, Leonhard took over as coordinator after Justin Wilcox left to take the head coaching job at California. Leonhard had a good rookie season as an assistant under head coach Paul Chryst overseeing the secondary. The Badgers rarely got beat deep, other than the 38-31 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten title game.
While the 34 year-old Leonhard may not have much coaching experience, his time in the NFL gives him credibility with players. He had 428 tackles and 14 interceptions playing with five teams, finishing his career in 2014 with the Cleveland Browns.
He also commands respect in Madison as one of the program’s rags-to-riches poster boys as a player. A one-time walk-on, Leonhard who would go on to match a school record with 21 career interceptions. His 11 picks as a sophomore in 2002 tied the Big Ten’s single-season record.
As an assistant, Leonhard has developed a reputation as a clear communicator. Former Badgers linebacker Vince Biegel, now a rookie in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers, said Leonhard displayed a cool presence on the field.
“My motto last season was ‘I want to be the calmest one on the sideline,’ just so guys feel that, they see that,” Leonhard said. “It’s OK we gave up a touchdown but we’re going to fix it, we’re going to be all right.”
That calm presence has already been tested this preseason after top linebacker Jack Cichy was lost for the year two weeks into camp with a knee injury. A backup linebacker, Zack Baun, is also out for the year with a foot injury so depth will be tested, though the secondary and defensive still figure to be strengths.
Senior safety D’Cota Dixon got to see a lighter side of Leonhard in the defensive backs room.
“Personality? He’s still the same. He’s still short. He always tries to call me the short guy,” the 5-foot-10 Dixon joked recently when asked how the 5-8 Leonhard has changed since becoming coordinator.
What has changed, Dixon said, is that Leonhard is a little tougher on players: “We’ve set standards for ourselves, talking about it, and coach Leonhard is kind of pushing us to live it.”
Leonhard’s goal is to earn the trust of players. Keep things fun, but know when to get locked in. It’s a balance that yielded success as a player.
“I would never have played as long as I did if I took the game too seriously, and I know that,” Leonhard said. “You even look at Saturdays, you’re there (at a game) for three, four hours. To be locked in three to four hours sometimes is very difficult.
“I think it’s very important to be able to have fun, but also to do your job, do it well,” he added, “and maybe enjoy it with your teammates.”