Wisconsin's Jim Leonhard is tenth in the nation and second in the Big Ten in punt return average (15.33 per attempt). He has also returned a punt for a touchdown twice in the Badgers last four games, giving him three for his career. After setting a school record with 434 punt return yards in a season last year, Leonhard already has 368 yards this season. His 802 career punt return yards rank second in school history (Nick Davis had 1,007) and he is one of only three Badgers to return two punts for touchdown in a single season (Earl Girard, 1947; Davis 1998).
Badger Nation spoke with Leonhard about the art of returning punts.
BN: Can you tell us about the punt return for touchdown against Purdue?
Obviously this season we have put a lot of emphasis on special teams and punt returns especially. We've got the right guys on the field right now and they are really playing hard and covering guys up for me. Just making the guys miss that are free. It feels great, really good for the team.
They way we are rolling right now we feel real good. We've got guys covering people up and whenever you can do that you have a chance to be successful. Even the ones we haven't quite got the last couple weeks it has felt close, we have felt real close. We are just trying to push through and just try to bust it when we really need it.
BN: How do you determine where you are going to set up prior to a punt?
Game-to-game it is on the punters—how good a leg they have, the field conditions, weather conditions, stuff like that. It is all on how you feel during the game, for the most part. You've got to get that first one or two and usually you have a pretty good read on it. Otherwise just catching the ball, just focus on catching the ball and good things usually happen.
BN: Do you know as soon as the ball is in the air where you are going to be going with it? Is it more on instincts or are there keys that you look for when the ball is in the air?
It is kind of instincts to a point and then it is just repetition and you see in practice every day you are just seeing the ball coming off the punter's foot and you can usually tell within the first second or 10 yards that the ball is in the air you can usually tell if it is coming back to you or if it is going away from you. It just takes practice. You have just got to see it over and over and eventually it is not that hard to read it.
BN: Are there signs that help with those reads?
It is all about how it comes off his foot—if it stays in tight spiral or, you know, it is something that you have to see and once you see it time and time again you get a real good read on it and get that extra step.
BN: What do you prefer? What are those reads that make you feel you are going to get a pretty good return?
I like to see a pretty decent kick, myself. If it is one of those short high ones you don't have that much of a chance. Either a decently long kick or one that comes out real low, where you have time to catch the ball and take a little peak at what is coming down before you have to make your move. Otherwise like I said it is just catch the ball and then it is all reaction and instincts after that.
If they out kick the coverage or if it's a low line drive then they are not exactly in coverage. Then they are just getting in and they are just trying to get off a block.
BN: What goes through your mind as you are straining for the corner like in the punt return against Purdue?
Once I kind of got through that initial wave all I saw was the punter and I was just saying to myself there is no way I'm getting caught by the punter. So I outrun him and then it is just a sprint to the corner and luckily we got there.
BN: You do not call for a fair catch on very many of them. When you do, is there an internal clock or is it just a feel, like you said before, as to whether it is a short, high punt?
It is all about, kind of an internal clock. It is one of those again, it just takes game reps where you get the speed of the game down. For the most part you know if it is taking too long to get there. It is just one of those things that you have to do over and over again at game speed. You can't really get that from practice.
BN: Do you look at your stat sheet at all, at the records you are putting up?
Not really. That is one of those things that you will look at at the end of the year. I just look game-to-game, you know, average, how many returns I had. Otherwise it is just game-to-game. I'm not really worried about any long term stats until when the season is done.
BN: Do you feel more and more that teams have to game plan for you?
I hope teams do. I hope they have to. I hope we have forced teams into doing that because we have been real successful and if they have to start doing things like that it is just going to help us out that much more. That is just a respect thing I think if teams do start kicking away or anything. I don't know if we have quite gotten to that status yet, but hopefully we can get there.