The first time he gets a chance to return a punt Saturday, Jim Leonhard will likely get the mere five yards he needs to become the Big Ten's most prolific punt returner, surpassing Bruce Branch's career record (1,171).
Leonhard, who will enter Wisconsin's game at Ohio State Saturday with 1,167 yards in just his third season returning punts, set the Badgers' school career record earlier this year. He also has the two highest single-season totals in UW history: 470 last year and 434 in 2002.
Leonhard has thrived with a take-no-prisoners attitude to the return game. The former walk-on free safety rarely calls for a fair catch and is never hesitant with the ball in his hands.
"Jimmy has deceiving speed and just a good feel and he gets north and south," Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said. "He sees things very well. So even though it's not real flashy, he's productive and he can pick out his blockers."
This season he is averaging 15.5 yards per return, the 12th-best mark in the nation. In addition to big returns—Leonhard has three career punt return touchdowns—the senior has saved Wisconsin countless yards by simply catching the ball. When a punt flutters short, Leonhard often races to it and catches it anyway, either calling for a fair catch or pushing it up field.
"There are a lot of guys, you kick that punt short, a lot of guys are going to stay away from it," Alvarez said. "But how many times have you seen him run up to catch a ball that's 15, 20 yards in front of him where if it hits the ground you had a chance to get it rolling. But he's not afraid to come up and make that play."
"You've got to get the feel of it," Leonhard said. "If it feels like it is taking too long, it probably is. If you are not very comfortable with the punt, whether it be the location or the height… those are the ones you've got to fair catch."
Leonhard has long insisted that his teammates' blocking deserves the credit for his success. Indeed, the Badgers' special teams have created seams but Leonhard still has done a remarkable job finding them.
"The first thing I guess is just looking for a crease," Leonhard said. "Trying to push the ball up the field and get as many yards as you can and look for that crease to where you can either cut back or keep pushing it to the front side of the return and hopefully hit a homerun with it."
Leonhard credits his days as an option quarterback at Flambeau School (Tony, Wis.) for helping him develop his instincts.
"With running the option you are reading everything on the run," Leonhard said. "So, it is not like you are just sitting back and trying to see a hole. You have to make all your reads while you are going full speed as an option quarterback. That definitely helps out a lot being a punt returner."
Leonhard a mighty returner
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