Head coach Paul Chryst announced Thursday that Leonhard, the former Badgers safety and three-time All-American who just completed his first season at UW, will be promoted to defensive coordinator.
"A year ago, if you were to ask me if this was going to happen, I'd probably would have laughed at you — not knowing exactly how it was going to go and how it would work out," Leonhard told UWBadgers. "Paul brought me in and asked me if I was interested. He thought I was ready and he thought I could handle it. I was excited about the possibility and kind of wanted to see where I was at — if I really wanted to entertain the idea.
"The longer I thought about it, the more excited I got about the possibilities and what could happen and I jumped at the opportunity."
In his first season as a college assistant, Leonhard’s impact on the Badgers’ secondary was immediate. His unit was instrumental in the Badgers grabbing 22 interceptions, a total that ranked second in the FBS and marked UW’s highest output since 2002, when Leonhard himself recorded a school-record 11 of UW’s 22 picks.
The secondary contributed to an overall effort that saw the Badgers finish the season ranked No. 4 nationally in scoring defense (15.6 points per game), No. 7 in total defense (301.4 yards per game), No. 3 in rushing defense (98.8 yards per game) and No. 10 in passing efficiency defense (106.9).
Under Leonhard’s tutelage, senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton was named first-team All-Big Ten for a season in which he recorded four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. Senior safety Leo Musso, the Badgers’ MVP, finished with a team-high five picks, while fellow safety D’Cota Dixon grabbed four.
"Jimmy has far more than just a one-year level of coaching knowledge; X's and O's, scheme knowledge," Chryst told the school website. "In fact, I think he has got great football schematic knowledge. And, then, I think a big part of coordinating is connecting. It's connecting the coaches and coming up with and coordinating the different units into a scheme. It's connecting the coaches to players. It's finding ways to connect players to players and how you play.
"It's connecting how one unit plays off the other two units. In this case, how does the defense play off of and with the offense and the special teams? Jimmy has a skill that he can connect groups of people. As a coach, teacher, I thought he'd be really good last year at this time. Now, I know that he's a heckuva teacher."
Leonhard, 34, replaces Justin Wilcox, who took the head coaching position at California after replacing Dave Aranda. Aranda left after the 2015 season to take the defensive coordinator position at LSU.
"It went a lot of places initially, trying to decide if it was the right time and if I was ready," Leonhard said. "The actual calling of the plays and designing everything, I feel very comfortable with. It's the rest … It's building the relationships with the guys and the staff. It's making sure of all the details in the day-to-day (operation). It's structuring practices and meetings. It's kind of the whole big picture of it. I was just making sure I was going to be comfortable with that and the time that went along with it."
In addition to Leonhard, Chryst interviewed defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield and outside linebacker coach Tim Tibesar, who interviewed for the job a year ago that went to Wilcox.
In my mind, it was, 'What do you have within (the staff)?' and then, 'What's out there that would be a fit?'" Chryst said. "I really feel fortunate with what we have in Inoke, Tim and Jimmy. In the end, I thought if it was from within, Jimmy would be the one that I felt really good with. He said he'd always thought about it and he'd be excited about it. That tells you he has self-confidence, and I have confidence in him."
Leonhard will continue coaching the Wisconsin secondary, meaning Chryst still has an open vacancy on his staff.