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CHICAGO – Wisconsin lost defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU following the 2015 season. Then, it lost Aranda’s successor, Justin Wilcox to California’s head coaching position after 2016. A duo of all-conference linebackers (T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel) were selected in the 2017 NFL Draft and a new defensive coordinator was hired this offseason.
The Badgers’ defense has undergone significant change and incurred substantial losses, but its 2017 product may be its best in years. The new defensive coordinator, Jim Leonhard, and two of his three defensive captains, Jack Cichy and Conor Sheehy, are Wisconsin natives, a common theme throughout the program. The personnel has changed, but the style of play will stay the same.
“I don’t think [the defense] has changed a whole lot,” Cichy said to internsbigten.com. “It’s definitely going to have some tweaks, but I think we still have a base of veterans that are back, and those guys understand what it means to play Wisconsin defense.”
Wisconsin’s core includes a starting and backup defensive line that returns everyone, four senior safeties led by captain D’Cota Dixon, and Cichy at linebacker. The defense is loaded with veteran leadership, which should help ease the transition in Leonhard’s first year.
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Leonhard bounced around the NFL as a safety from 2005 through 2014. He took Wisconsin’s defensive backs coaching position in 2016 and now makes the jump to coordinator. Both head coach Paul Chryst and the Wisconsin players emphasized his ability to connect with the team.
“One of the best qualities that Jimmy has is he understands football, but, more importantly, he understands players,” Chryst said at Big Ten Media Days. “He’s a tremendous connector, connector of people, and so it’s been good.”
His instruction doesn’t just stay on the defensive side. Tight end Troy Fumugali has come to Leonhard as well.
“Troy asked him how to run routes better because Leonhard went up against the best tight ends in the league for a number of years,” Cichy said.
Under Leonhard’s leadership, Wisconsin’s experienced defense will face a manageable 2017 schedule, one much easier than its 2016 slate. The Badgers played five different ranked opponents in 2016, all five being in the top 10 when Wisconsin faced them. Michigan will almost surely being the only ranked team on Wisconsin’s schedule when the week one polls come out in August. ESPN’s FPI gives Wisconsin a 68.6 percent chance of winning against Michigan and more than a 70 percent chance of winning in each other 2017 game. However, the Badgers haven’t let high expectations impact their preparation.
“That’s what’s great about this season is you have to go play it,” Chryst said. “And all the talk doesn’t really matter. And so don’t spend a lot of time, energy, thinking about what’s being said. You try to focus your energy and your players’ energy on what you can control, what you can best put your energy into, and that’s the fun part.”
Chryst, an offensive mind, has fit into Wisconsin’s defense-first culture with strong player leadership. Whether the Badgers can win the Big Ten and make it to the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history, that will ride on Wisconsin’s offense. For the Badger defense? They should be just fine.