Jim Leonhard isn’t interested in labels when it comes to the University of Wisconsin’s defense.
The fifth-year coordinator coaches the Badgers’ safeties, sure, but he’s not going to limit what they do to pass coverage deep down the field.
“What I hit with our safeties a lot is there's very few … the farther you play this game, there's very few guys that I would say, ‘He's just the safety,’” Leonhard said on a Zoom call Monday.
“There’s safeties that have the ability to play like corners, there’s safeties that have the ability to play like inside ‘backers or outside linebackers. You have to have two; you have to be able to do two. The age of football that we're in with all the spread, all the RPO, you can create some issues. So (I’m) always trying to find that. … These guys need to be dynamic at the safety position alone, what's next? What is that next thing that’s going to be your niche to make you stand out and different from the rest?”
Seniors Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder are in line to be UW’s starting safeties this fall and have been demonstrating the different roles Leonhard wants to put his safeties in. They’ve lined up at linebacker depth, both inside and outside, covered receivers on the outside and blitzed from multiple spots.
Nelson has a theory on where Leonhard, a former three-time All-American safety for UW before playing 10 years in the NFL, gets his willingness to experiment with safeties.
“I think his mind never stops working and trying to figure out how he can — maybe a little biased — how he can get safeties in positions to make plays," Nelson said. "As a safety, you’ve got to love that and appreciate that.
“So there's some stuff he's got in the works and we're learning and walking through now, more and more each day. Whether it's literally in a walkthrough or a couple reps here and there in practice, we're working on disguises and actually executing the technique.”
Nelson said he’s worked sparingly in the nickel corner position and some along the line.
Wilder has proven in his career at UW to be a big hitter who plays with good speed. He said he’s worked most at outside linebacker spots, where he’s aligned in a number of packages. Learning the footwork and hand-placement techniques to take on bigger blockers is a challenge, but Wilder’s enjoying it.
“We're everywhere, which is what I love about this scheme that coach Leonhard has,” Wilder said.
Junior John Torchio is taking advantage of the new looks — Wilder said he was leading the defensive backs in interceptions this spring.
“I really like going over the ball and kind of being off the QB,” Torchio said. “You’ve got no threat of getting beat deep, you don’t have to worry about a specific man. He’s putting us in different positions and we're messing with the scheme a little bit and I'm really enjoying it. I'm making plays off of it.”
Leonhard envisions opportunities across the board for the safeties this season, using the example of Natrell Jamerson with the group. Jamerson was drafted in 2018 after playing a variety of positions in the Badgers' secondary.
“You look at Natrell Jamerson, was kind of the same mold of, ‘Well, he played corner, he played nickel,’ and all of a sudden he kind of ends up in that safety position and you use his athleticism to create some matchups that are more in your favor,” Leonhard said. “Hoping to find guys that fit that mold. ‘Jam’ was pretty special for us his senior year, and trying to find guys that are flexible.”
Having a mix of skill sets will be crucial with Leonhard pushing his safeties into different roles.
Torchio played more on defense in 2019 than he did last season. Senior Tyler Mais is in a similar boat, although Mais played in each game of the past two years on special teams. Per Leonhard, sophomore Titus Toler has been out for “a significant amount of time” of spring practices with an injury, and junior Travian Blaylock was having a strong spring session before sustaining an ankle injury during practice April 17. Freshman Preston Zachman also has shown promise as he makes the transition from linebacker to safety.
Building depth and having more options to deploy was one of Leonhard’s focuses this spring.
“To me, a big part of college football is not necessarily taking snaps off of a guy because of lack of production, it's to allow guys to just play as hard as possible,” Leonhard said.
“You can play as hard as possible and we'll get you a blow because I have a lot of faith in that next guy coming in there. … It's kind of building in that mentality of you're going to get little breaks within the game, so empty the tank every series. Once the game gets on the line, we're going to get guys in there that have a great feel that week and in that game plan of how to execute in crunch time.”
A game-by-game look at the Badgers' 2021 football schedule
WEEK 1: vs. Penn State
Date: Sept. 4
All-time series: UW trails 9-10
Last meeting: UW lost 22-10 in 2018
Key returner: WR Jahan Dotson posted five games of over 100 yards receiving and was a catalyst of the team’s four-game winning streak to end last season.
Note: The Nittany Lions’ losing season last year was their first under coach James Franklin and the program’s second since 2004.
WEEK 2: vs. Eastern Michigan
Date: Sept. 11
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 24-3 in 1996
Key returner: QB Preston Hutchinson averaged 277 yards per game last season.
Note: The Eagles have had two winning seasons since 2010.
WEEK 3: vs. Notre Dame (Soldier Field, Chicago)
Date: Sept. 26
All-time series: UW trails 6-8-2
Last meeting: UW lost 31-7 in 1964
Key returner: Safety Kyle Hamilton, who led the Irish in tackles, had six pass breakups last season.
Note: Former Badgers QB Jack Coan will be in the running to be the starting QB for the Irish after transferring this winter.
WEEK 4: vs. Michigan
Date: Oct. 2
All-time series: UW trails 17-51-1
Last meeting: UW won 49-11 on Nov. 14, 2020
Key returner: WR Ronnie Bell was a bright spot on an offense that struggled with inconsistent quarterback play.
Note: Despite the Wolverines’ 2-4 season, the program extended the contract of coach Jim Harbaugh and posted the second-best recruiting class in the conference.
WEEK 5: at Illinois
Date: Oct. 9
All-time series: UW leads 43-37-7
Last meeting: UW won 45-7 on Oct. 23, 2020
Key returner: QB Brandon Peters, who gives the Illini some stability under center while they adjust to a new coaching staff. The Illini are looking to bounce back from a tough 2020 that included a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Note: First-year coach Bret Bielema, the former UW coach, has said he envisions a three-man front for the defense, a major shift that already has prompted the transfer of DE Owen Carney Jr.
WEEK 6: vs. Army
Date: Oct. 16
All-time series: First meeting
Last meeting: N/A
Key returner: QB Tyhier Tyler (above) led the Black Knights in rushing (578 yards) despite only playing in seven of their 12 games.
Note: This could be a difficult test for the Badgers, preparing for a triple-option attack in the middle of the conference season.
WEEK 7: at Purdue
Date: Oct. 23
All-time series: UW leads 50-29-8
Last meeting: UW won 45-24 in 2019
Key returner: DE George Karlaftis (above), who was sidelined by injuries last season, is a potential game-wrecker off the edge. He helped land his younger brother Yanni Karlaftis, a four-star OLB who is the highest-ranked player in Purdue’s class and was considering UW.
Note: Last season’s game was canceled due to UW’s COVID-19 outbreak, but the Badgers haven’t lost to Purdue since 2003.
WEEK 8: vs. Iowa
Date: Oct. 30
All-time series: UW leads 48-44-2
Last meeting: UW lost 28-7 on Dec. 12, 2020
Key returner: QB Spencer Petras, made strides in first year as a starter, but with defense losing studs up front and the offense losing playmaker Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Petras will be asked to do more
Note: Iowa’s win over the Badgers at Kinnick Stadium was just their second in the rivalry since 2010
Week 9: at Rutgers
Date: Nov. 6
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 31-17 in 2018
Key returner: WR/KR Aron Cruickshank (above) — who transferred from UW last season — provided a number of big plays in the return game en route to winning the league’s returner of the year award and was the team’s second-leading receiver.
Note: UW has only surrendered 27 points in three matchups against the Scarlet Knights
WEEK 10: vs. Northwestern
Date: Nov. 13
All-time series: UW leads 60-37-5
Last meeting: UW lost 17-7 on Nov. 21, 2020
Key returner: Safety Brandon Joseph (above), earned All-American honors as a freshman after tallying six interceptions, eight pass breakups and 56 total tackles
Note: Longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz — a former assistant coach at UW — retired after last season
WEEK 11: vs. Nebraska
Date: Nov. 20
All-time series: UW leads 10-4
Last meeting: UW won 37-21 in 2019
Key returner: QB Adrian Martinez (above), who battled for his position with Luke McCaffrey last season, comes into the season as the presumed starter after McCaffrey announced he was transferring
Note: UW has an 18-point average margin of victory over Nebraska in its seven-game win streak over the Huskers
WEEK 12: at Minnesota
Date: Nov. 27
All-time series: UW leads 62-60-8
Last meeting: UW won 20-17 in OT on Dec. 19, 2020
Key returner: RB Mo Ibrahim (above), winner of the Big Ten’s running back of the year award last season, scored 15 touchdowns and set multiple program records last season
Note: The Gophers have attacked the transfer market hard, landing seven transfer players this winter