Jim Leonhard burst on the scene last year as Wisconsin's strong safety and recorded a Big Ten record-tying 11 interceptions. He also tied a school record, and led the conference, with 25 pass break ups. Leonhard was all over the field making plays last season, also accumulating 99 tackles.
This season, Leonhard's stellar play will not surprise anyone. He is on the watch list for the Nagurski and Thorpe Awards and is widely considered one of the best defensive backs in the country. He is also one of Wisconsin's team captains.
Leonhard converted to free safety this season, where he will have more room to rove the field and make plays. It will be very tough for Leonhard to duplicate last season's gaudy statistics, but expect more of the same form a caliber-of-play standpoint. Leonhard is an exceptional athlete and tremendous competitor. He has fantastic instincts, ball skills and hands. Leonhard can cover receivers out of the slot quite well is exceptional when patrolling zones. Quite simply a dynamic player, Leonhard may prove to the best defensive player in the Big Ten.
Joining him in the starting lineup is stalwart Ryan Aiello, who swaps positions with Leonhard and moves to strong safety. Aiello led Wisconsin with 105 tackles and, moving closer to the line at strong safety, he may very well lead the team in that category again. Aiello is a fearsome hitter and sure tackler who patrols the field well. He is a solid athlete with very good football skills and he plays faster than he is. Aiello showed improved coverage skills this fall, especially when matched up with ends or third receivers. The senior should be a solid presence on the Badgers defense.
Junior Robert Brooks remains the top backup at free safety and will substitute for Aiello in the nickel package. Brooks has very good coverage skills; he tracks and makes plays on the ball well. Brooks is a good safety with solid all-around skills. A very capable backup, it is surprising that he has not recorded an interception the past two seasons.
Redshirt freshman walk-on Joe Stellmacher was one of the highlights of fall camp. Stellmacher jumped from No. 3 strong safety to the top nickel back job, replacing reserve corner Chuckie Cowans. Later in camp he moved up to No. 2 at strong safety. Stellmacher does not possess good track speed, but he has very good functional football speed. Stellmacher made plays all over the field during fall camp, in one two-day span picking off four passes. Stellmacher does a good job stepping up versus the run; he even made some tackles behind the line in scrimmage situations. More impressively, and importantly for his role in the nickel, Stellmacher displays very well-honed coverage skills. He looks very comfortable whether playing a zone or matching up with any matter of receiver.
Freshman free safety Johnny White had an impressive fall camp and will likely avoid a redshirt. White is a fierce hitter and extremely good athlete. At 6-2, 202, he has ideal size. White displayed a nice ability to make a play on the ball and to stay with receivers and rare was the practice that did not include White absolutely drilling someone in a scrimmage session. Playing behind Leonhard and Brooks he will not see much of the field this season, though he could help the team in special teams. In any case, White's future looks very bright.
Dontez Sanders slipped to No. 3 at strong safety after Stellmacher's emergence and is currently on the scout defense. Sanders did not have a bad fall camp. He still needs to improve his coverage skills, but his a very good, active athlete who makes his share of plays. He is a big-time hitter who should help the Badgers considerably in special teams.