By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
July 25, 2023
(Cover photo courtesy Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen/USA Today Network)
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Jim Leonhard and Bret Bielema have reunited for the first time in nearly two decades since Leonhard was an All-America selection as a senior defensive back and a 34-year-old Bielema was a first-year defensive coordinator.
Bielema said last fall in anticipation of facing Leonhard’s Badgers defense in Madison before a 34-10 victory over Wisconsin the first conversation he had in 2004 with then-head coach Barry Alvarez before accepting the promotion of defensive coordinator was about Leonard.
“Coach Alvarez told me that you don’t need to sell yourself to everybody in the locker room at once but maybe the one guy who you need to get immediate buy-in from is Jimmy Leonhard,” Bielema said.
Leonhard was announced Tuesday to a “Senior Football Analyst role less than a month before preseason camp will start for the 2023 season and less than 24 hours before Bielema will take to a podium at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis at Big Ten Football Media Days.
Leonhard spent six seasons as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator from 2017-22, including last year while serving as interim head coach. He started his coaching career at Wisconsin in 2016 after a 10-year NFL career and one of the most successful playing careers in Wisconsin history. Leonhard was seen inside the Smith Family Football Center in the spring during Devon Witherspoon’s private draft workout but media reports were swirling around him being a hire to an NFL defensive staff but before his first appearance in Champaign, Leonhard reportedly took his name out of consideration for the defensive coordinator role with the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Leonhard became a defensive coordinator less than a year after starting his coaching career and went on to be named a finalist for the Broyles Award, presented to the nation's top assistant coach, in his first season running Wisconsin's defense in 2017.
A 2015 inductee to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, Leonhard's long list of accolades includes being a three-time first-team All-American, three-time All-Big Ten first-team selection, two-time Academic All-American, and two-time team captain. Leonhard was an All-American captain in his final year in Madison in 2004 and the first year where Bielema was the defensive boss.
"Coming in as a senior, having success and just seeing how (Bielema) put his stamp on the defense and what we were gonna do, and the big thing I remember was just the amount of confidence that he gave us and that he tried to preach," Leonhard said in Oct. 2021. "Just the style of play -- the physicality, the play speed, just what were our calling cards going to be on defense? I think in Year 1 that was more than Xs and Os and schemes. That was what he wanted to kind of get across to the players, and we had a talented group.”
Wisconsin allowed 17 or less points in the first nine contests of that 2004 season, with opponents not reaching double digits until the sixth game, a 24-13 win for the Badgers over No. 16 Ohio State in Columbus. The Badgers started 2004 with a 9-0 record before falling in its final three contests.
"He wasn't overly complicated, but he wanted us to play a certain way, and he called us out if it wasn't that way,” Leonhard said of Bielema as a defensive coordinator. “So I think that was the number one thing that I remember from playing with him, just how he came in and the mindset he tried to instill in the team, and I'm sure he's trying to do that very same thing in Illinois. You're seeing it in the physicality they're trying to play with and the commitment to playing a certain style of football."
NCAA rules allow 10 coaches, including the head coach, to directly instruct players on the field during practice and games. The 10 coaches does not include as many as four graduate assistant coaches who are also allowed to work with players at practice and be on the field during games. Leonhard’s work will typically be in a scouting capacity identifying trends and tendencies in Illinois’ defensive scheme and being able to do future game plan breakdowns for upcoming opponents this season.
Leonhard’s presence will be seen as extremely valuable to Illini first-year defensive coordinator Aaron Henry with another veteran voice in the room who is seen as one of the nation’s best defensive minds.
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