Jim Leonhard promoted to defensive coordinator at Wisconsin

MADISON — Wisconsin has its new defensive coordinator.

Late Thursday afternoon, the school announced that secondary coach Jim Leonhard had been promoted to the position after just one year as a coach.

“I love teaching the game of football. The last year really has been great learning the college game again,” Leonhard told UWBadgers.com. “Now, I’m looking forward to having a little more say as to what we do and how we do it. Just the approach I want to have to teach these guys.”

A former walk-on turned three-time All-American at Wisconsin, Leonhard spent 10 years in the NFL before taking a year off in 2015. When the opportunity to join his alma mater came in 2016, he jumped at it. And now, less than a year after taking that job, he’s being called on to run the entire defense.

“To me, for a coordinator, there has to be certainly a football knowledge level,” coach Paul Chryst told UWBadgers.com. “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.”

Chryst said he spoke with the two other defensive assistants — outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar and defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield — but felt Leonhard was the best option to replace Justin Wilcox, who left to take the head coaching job at California last month.

Long considered to be a coach on the field during his playing career, Leonhard now has the reigns to a defense that has been among the best in the nation the last four seasons.

“To me, it’s just taking that baton and putting my stamp on it,” Leonhard said. “Being myself and doing it my way but making the players understand that it’s their defense and they’re going to control where this thing goes.”

Report: Wisconsin DC Justin Wilcox in contract negotiations to become California’s next head coach

MADISON | Wisconsin is about to be in the market for a new defensive coordinator.

Multiple outlets are reporting that Justin Wilcox is on the verge of being named the head coach at California, replacing the fired Sonny Dykes. The 40-year-old interviewed for the position on Tuesday, and according to Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman, Wilcox and Cal were in contract negotiations Thursday afternoon.

Wilcox coached the linebackers in Berkley from 2003 to 2005 before becoming a successful defensive coordinator at several different schools, including Boise State and Washington. An Oregon native, Wilcox just finished his first year at Wisconsin, overseeing a unit that finished fourth in the country in points allowed per game.

The impending departure means coach Paul Chryst will be looking for a new defensive coordinator for a second straight year after losing Dave Aranda to LSU last January. It’s unclear if he’ll go outside of the program again like he did with Wilcox, or promote from within, with the likes of secondary coach Jim Leonhard and outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar the most likely candidates.

Wilcox was due to make $950,000 in 2017, with a $100,000 bonus if he was still on the staff at the start of 2018. His buyout to leave early will cost him — or more likely California — $25,000.

Report: Wisconsin DC Justin Wilcox the leading candidate for the California head-coaching job

MADISON — Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is the leading candidate to replace the fired Sonny Dykes at California.

That’s according to Scout.com’s Ryan Gorcey, who covers the Bears.

The 40-year-old Wilcox reportedly interviewed for the job on Tuesday in Berkley, according to Fox Sport’s Bruce Feldman.

Wilcox has ties to the area, having coached the Bears linebackers under former coach Jeff Tedford from 2003 to 2005. Before coming to Wisconsin last January, a majority of Wilcox’s experience came while coaching on the West Coast, and he played his college football at Oregon.

The opportunity for Wilcox comes after just one year in Madison, where he helped put together one of the top defenses in the country, finishing fourth in the nation in scoring defense (15.6 points per game).

If Wilcox ends up getting the Cal job, it’ll force coach Paul Chryst to once again go searching for a defensive coordinator just one year after losing Dave Aranda to LSU. Though it’s possible he would go outside of the program to find his guy, outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar and secondary coach Jim Leonhard would also be potential candidates.

Is it finally Leo Musso’s time at safety?

MADISON | Three years is an eternity in college. The changes in people between the ages of 19 and 22 are as stark as at any other time in one’s life. And Wisconsin’s Leo Musso is no different as he enters his senior season.

Physically, he’s bigger and stronger. Though still listed at 5-foot-10, the Waunakee product has added about 10 pounds within the last year, leaving him at 195, and making his commitment to the weight room clear.

Appearance-wise, the buzz cut look he sported in one of his first team pictures has been replaced by long dark hair that flows out of the back of his helmet and bounces off his shoulder pads as he runs. And instead of being clean-shaven, Musso has a thin, scruffy beard that covers his face and neck.

Off the field, Musso has always been smart, but even there the 22-year-old went from being a freshman trying to find his way around campus to a veteran of balancing the rigors of football and school, graduating earlier this year with a degree in community and nonprofit leadership, and earning Academic All-Big Ten honors in three straight seasons.

And yet for all that’s changed in his life one thing has remained the same for Musso. Almost three years to the day since he first fielded questions about his chances of starting at safety for Wisconsin, Musso was standing in front of a reporter and being asked essentially the same question: Is this your year?

“I hope so,” Musso said with a grin. “This could be my last year of football, and that’s how I’m approaching it.”

In 2013, Musso was about a year removed from leaving high school as one of the best running backs the state of Wisconsin had ever seen. After running for 5,531 yards and 87 touchdowns as a prep, Musso came to Wisconsin and moved to defensive back. And when former coach Gary Andersen and then-defensive coordinator Dave Aranda brought their 3-4 scheme to Madison, Musso ran with the first-team defense for a large portion of fall camp, but was eventually passed on the depth chart by Michael Caputo.

A year later, with Wisconsin looking to replace Dezmen Southward, Musso suffered an injury in fall camp and missed the first two games, as the Badgers started true freshman Lubern Figaro at the spot next to Caputo.

And then last season, despite getting the start in the opener against Alabama, Musso was passed over by Tanner McEvoy, who would end up leading Wisconsin in interceptions.

But now, with two safety spots open thanks to the departure of Caputo and McEvoy, Musso is in a solid position to grab one of the starting spots. He and junior D’Cota Dixon have been working with the first-team defense, while sophomore Arrington Farrar, true freshmen Patrick Johnson and Eric Burrell, along with junior Joe Ferguson have seen time with the second-team defense.

“I don’t think it’s set yet by any means,” Chryst said of the safety rotation. “If (the younger guys) keep pushing, I think we can create a little bit of competition, which helps the whole group.”

Still, it’s likely that the two starters, as well as their backups, will come from the set of five players that have seen the most action in fall camp.

“I think at safety and cornerback we’ve had a group of guys that have really separated (from the rest),” new secondary coach Jim Leonhard said after a recent practice. “(They’re) consistently doing what you ask. Whether it’s techniques, making plays on the ball (or) finishing plays.”

Leonhard has a significant task in front of him. Caputo was an inspiring figure the past few seasons, serving as Wisconsin’s captain as a senior and earned All-Big Ten honors in all three of his seasons starting for the Badgers. McEvoy, who played offense and defense during his time, was an All-Big Ten honorable mention pick last year.

“Obviously, we’re the guys that are replacing Mike Caputo and Tanner McEvoy, but we don’t really look at it like that,” Musso said. “I think more than anything, we’re just excited to show what we got. Kind of look at that as a chip on our shoulder. We’re confident in our abilities.”

The presence of Caputo and McEvoy made the rest of the defense confident and gave Aranda the flexibility to create havoc with his front seven and not worry about deep balls or blown coverages.

With a large contingent of that front seven back, the question remains whether new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will show as much confidence in Musso, Dixon and others when dialing up blitzes and other aspects of his scheme.

“I feel comfortable with the guys that we’ve got rolling with those first and second units,” Leonhard said. “We’re going to make teams beat us by making plays, not by making mistakes.”

Wisconsin’s All-Big Ten outside linebacker, Vince Biegel, is roommates with Musso, and has seen his transformation from the moment he stepped on campus in 2012 to now as they prepare for their final season in Madison. He’s got a significant level of confidence in Musso and the rest of the safety group that they’ll be able to hold up their end of the bargain.

“Nothing changes (from last year),” Biegel said when asked about his expectations for the revamped secondary. “It’s been fun to watch those guys progress in spring ball, and it’s been fun to watch them already progress in fall camp. We’ve still got a long way to go. But I’ve been assured that they’re going to cover them just long enough for me to get to the passer.”

With Wisconsin’s matchup with No. 5 LSU on Sept. 3 fast approaching, the coaching staff will need to make a decision soon on who will get the nod against the Tigers at Lambeau Field. Musso has no intention of making that decision easy on them, but he’s also prepared for whatever they say.

“At the end of the day, I hope I’m starting,” Musso said. “But if I’m not, then that’s what’s best for the team. And that’s all that matters.”

Williams: Leonhard The Most “slept-on” Hire Of 2016

By Eric Rogers
Feb. 20, 2016 1:36 p.m. CT
MADISON, Wis. — Former University of Wisconsin teammate and NFL receiver Brandon Williams calls the hiring of Jim Leonhard, “the most ‘slept-on'” of the 2016 college football season.
When the Badgers announced on Saturday morning that Leonhard would take over as the next defensive backs coach, it wasn’t the first name that came to mind for Williams, but after thinking about what kind of coach they’d be getting, Williams quickly warmed up to the idea.
The Zone’s Eric Rogers spoke with Williams Saturday afternoon.