This season, Wisconsin is going through a makeover on defense having to replace multiple starters. The last time the Badgers had to do a makeover like this was right before the 2018 season. That season, despite being ranked as high as fourth, the Badgers severely underperformed. They would finish the season with a record of 8-5 and unranked in both polls. Jim Leonhard’s unit ranked an uncharacteristic 41st in total defense, 38th in passing yards, 56th in rushing, and 43rd in points allowed per game. This has been the worst finish any of Jim Leonhard’s defenses have had to this day. While the 2022 season may have some trying moments, I don’t see this year resembling anything like 2018.
The Transfer Portal
College football was very different then. The transfer portal wasn’t established until October of that year. Before the portal, transferring was more complicated, and a player would have to sit out the year if they left. Most of the time players would transfer because they got kicked off their original team. This meant the Badgers were forced to start a lot of underclassmen who probably weren’t ready yet and had no playing experience. This was especially true at the cornerback, defensive end, and free safety positions.
Now that the NCAA has established the transfer portal, Wisconsin is no longer forced to play underclassmen. This offseason, the Badgers dipped into the transfer portal and got commitments from senior cornerbacks Jay Shaw (UCLA), Cedrick Dort (Kentucky), and Justin Clark (Toledo). Those guys have played a lot of college football, and this allows the Badgers to play them right away. It also allows the underclassmen more time to develop their skills and be more prepared to play when the time comes.
Relaxed Redshirt Rules
The redshirt rules were different at the time as well. Coaches used to have to decide to redshirt a player in preseason practice. This meant that a player who was redshirted would be unable to play in a game without their eligibility starting to lapse. If that player didn’t redshirt, then their “eligibility clock” would begin ticking.
The new redshirt rules that have been established take away this issue. Players are now allowed to play in up to four games before they get redshirted. This makes evaluating players much easier for the coaching staff. Everyone knows that game situations are much different than practice.
New To the Job
Going into that season, Jim Leonhard was just in his second year as the defensive coordinator. Leonhard had taken over as defensive coordinator in 2017 after spending one season as a defensive backs coach. Wisconsin’s defense had a lot of success that season. The Badgers defense finished the season first in total defense, fourth in passing yards, second in rushing and third in points per game. He was even nominated for the Broyles Award as the best assistant in college football that season.
However, that defense was built by original defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and taken care of by Justin Wilcox for a year. While Jim Leonhard coached the defensive backs and recruited in 2016, much of that defense was already developed. Many of those players had been starters under Dave Aranda and Justin Wilcox. This meant that Leonhard was inheriting a great defense upon taking over as defensive coordinator.
Jim Leonhard had only been coaching for two years, one as a position coach and another as the defensive coordinator. Both his predecessors Dave Aranda and Justin Wilcox had been coordinators at other schools before coming to Wisconsin. There was still a lot for Jim Leonhard to learn about coaching. It also didn’t help that the defensive line was very decimated with injuries that season making Leonhard’s job even harder.
More Experienced Now
Now in his sixth season as a coordinator, Leonhard has experienced a lot during that time and has learned many lessons from that 2018 season. Since that debacle of a season, Wisconsin hasn’t finished outside the top ten in total defense. Many great players have passed through the program and Jim Leonhard and his staff have done a great job at developing new ones. With the knowledge Leonhard has, I expect the Badgers defense to be just fine this season.