New Wisconsin DB coach Jim Leonhard inspiring confidence among players

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin's new defensive backs coach popped in some NFL game film this offseason of the Cleveland Browns for members of his secondary to watch. He wanted them to grasp the communication necessary to succeed at the highest level, to see how patience, technique and tempo melded together to form a group that played seamlessly on the back end.

And then, spliced among those cut-ups, the new coach himself emerged on screen. There was Jim Leonhard, all 5-foot-8 of him, standing toe to toe with some of the best wide receivers in the world.

Before last month, Leonhard had never worked as a college football coach at any level. But perhaps no man across the country with as little coaching experience entering spring practice carried as much cachet with a bunch of 18-to-22-year-old players as Leonhard, who is 33. A recently completed 10-year NFL playing career tends to build instant credibility for players who dream of following a similar path.

"As far as just being with him in film and on the field, it's just a hell of a thing to see," Badgers cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. "Because he's on another level as far as mentally and knowing the game of football."

Wisconsin lost three of its four starters in the secondary from last year's team, which finished No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense and No. 2 in total defense. Still, members of the current secondary say they expect to perform every bit as well as that bunch. And a big reason for their belief is Leonhard's presence.

"Coach Leonhard is doing a great job with us and our techniques," Badgers safety D'Cota Dixon said. "I feel like I haven't been coached like that in a long time. I guess it's different because he's been there, been in the same position.

"He has the knowledge and the experience, playing with the top-notch players. He played with [Darrelle] Revis. It's like you've got to listen to everything he says. The smallest thing, you really want to pay attention. He's given the secondary as a unit confidence, too."

Leonhard's accomplishments at Wisconsin are the stuff of legend, and his story of hard work and perseverance won't be soon forgotten around the state. He was a small-statured safety from the even smaller town of Tony, Wisconsin, who only received a walk-on offer from head coach Barry Alvarez after he ran a pair of 4.4-second 40-yard dashes at a summer camp. By the time he left the program, he had tied the school record with 21 interceptions and held the all-time record for punt return yards in a career, earning first-team all-Big Ten honors in each of his last three seasons.

Leonhard was overlooked again in the 2005 NFL draft, but still made the 53-man opening day roster for the Buffalo Bills. He went on to play 10 seasons with the Bills, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and the Browns before retiring after the 2014 season.

Of course, just because Leonhard was a great football player did not mean he would be an excellent coach when he was hired to replace Daronte' Jones in February. But the way in which he is able to simplify concepts and relate to players has made the transition smooth.

"Just everything he says makes sense," Badgers safety Leo Musso said. "It's pretty remarkable the things that he sees, the technique that he teaches. He's more of a player than a coach, and I think that helps us out a lot. He's patient, makes sure you know what you're doing, but he's not one to get on you. He wants you to do stuff right. With the career he had, listening to him is a no-brainer."

Leonhard has been trying to instill the same mindset an NFL defensive back would have, teaching his players how to read the quarterback, eliminate various route splits run by receivers, react to formations and to play with confidence. He also has continued to show them film from the pros, including the world champion Denver Broncos secondary.

"Obviously my experience helps playing 10 years in the NFL, it's a goal all these guys have," Leonhard said. "So having that, you kind of have their ear already. They're going to listen. I haven't shown too many clips of myself, but I do like to show them NFL clips because it's the best of the best. What does it look like? How smooth do they look? How comfortable are they? It's just trying to get that sort of mentality more so than, 'Yeah, you just have to do it like this and you'll be great.' Obviously there's a lot that goes into it."

The leading candidates to fill Wisconsin's vacant starting safety spots are Musso and Dixon, who again worked with the first-team defense during Thursday's practice. Arrington Farrar also could earn a starting spot. At cornerback, Derrick Tindal is the likely third new starter opposite Shelton, though Natrell Jamerson is battling for time.

Leonhard expressed optimism in his unit because many had significant playing time last season in backup roles. Musso, Dixon and Jamerson played in all 13 games. Farrar and Tindal played in 12. And after three spring practices, it's clear Leonhard's confidence has trickled down to his players.

"This year, I think we can be just as good, if not better," Shelton said. "I think overall as a secondary we're going to be playing a lot smarter. We truly have to take advantage of Jim Leonhard being here and teaching us, and we've done that so far."