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Wisconsin’s walk-on led defense

How Wisconsin’s walk-on tradition is defining their approach on defense.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a good deal of turnover at defensive coordinator over this decade, fielding consistently good defenses has been the hallmark of the this decade’s Wisconsin Badger teams. This offseason they lost Justin Wilcox to the California head coaching...opportunity, and then promoted from within by elevating Jim Leonhard from DB coach to DC after a single year of coaching!

If you take a glance at Wisconsin’s success on defense over the last decade and their evolving process for fielding defenses, particularly juxtaposed with Wilcox’s resume, it’s not hard to believe that this could prove to be a successful hiring for the Badgers.

Wilcox was something of a journeyman who’d been the defensive coordinator at other big programs like Tennessee and USC before coming to Wisconsin and taking charge of the unit that Dave Aranda left behind en route to LSU. He inherited a defense that was plugging in developed upperclassmen at multiple spots with as many as three future NFL linebackers up front in Jack Cichy, T.J. Watt, and Vince Biegel. Because Wilcox employed a 3-4 defense like what Wisconsin had been using, it was an easy transition and a simple matter for the Badgers to move forward without having to overhaul anything.

Leonhard’s story is essentially that of the Badgers in the Barry Alvarez era. He was a Wisconsin native that didn’t get much attention, due in part to his size (5’8”, 188 pounds), who walked on to the program and ended up becoming a three-year 1st team All-Big 10 selection. He was then undrafted by the NFL yet established a nine-year career in the league, frequently working with and learning from defensive guru Rex Ryan while also developing schemes even as a player.

He’s taking over the Badger defense at the young age of 34, but then both Chris Ash and Dave Aranda took over at 37 so he’s only three years ahead of the last two ultra-successful defensive gurus who built their careers in Madison.

Wisconsin’s defenses have received boosts from in-state walk-ons for years, it stands to reason that one of them would eventually come back and take command of the defense. Here’s a glimpse of what Leonhard is inheriting in the recent Wisconsin defensive tradition:

Walk-ons attack!

The move to the 3-4 under Gary Andersen was clearly huge for unlocking the potential of Wisconsin as a defensive squad because it emphasized the importance of linebackers and the Badgers have tended to find some good ones.

Big sturdy guys that are excellent in the box but would have questionable fits in a defensive scheme that asked them to cover a lot of grass against today’s spread offenses seem to sprout out of the ground at Wisconsin farms. Since 2014 in particular, when Joe Schobert (a walk-on) and Vince Biegel took over the two outside linebacker positions, Wisconsin has preferred defensive packages that kept four linebackers on the field. In their nickel package that has meant embracing a 2-4-5 package that Wisconsin relied on for the majority of their snaps in 2016.

With four linebackers in the box all the time, each skilled in playing a few different positions and roles within the front, the Badgers were free to unleash the hell of modern blitz schemes on their opponents. If all four linebackers know how to play a few different coverage assignments and a few different spots up front than any of the them can become a featured weapon in the pass rush on any given snap.

This requires that each of the linebackers be extra versatile and well-versed in playing a few different roles in the front, but big, versatile linebackers are a commodity that Wisconsin rarely seems to lack.

In year one (2013) the pass-rush wasn’t particularly fearsome but in 2014 inside-backer Derek Landisch and outside-backer Vince Biegel had eight and 5.5 sacks respectively. In 2015 outside-backer Joe Schobert (walk-on) led the way with 9.5 sacks while inside-backer Jack Cichy (walk-on) and Biegel chipped in five and 4.5 each.

In 2016 outside-backer T.J. Watt was the featured man with 11.5 sacks but Garrett Dooley and Vince Biegel combined for 7.5 more while splitting time (due to injury) at the other outside-backer spot. The blitz package was filled with brutal tactics such as this number:

They had five linebackers on the field for this one with one DL Conor Sheehy (lined up as the nose) and then their normal nickel secondary matched up on the four WRs for Western Michigan.

The cruelty of the blitz design here is that #53 (T.J. Edwards) feigns a blitz to hold the guard before peeling out into shallow coverage to help on any crossers over the middle. Sheehy crosses the center’s face and holds him while Biegel (#47) attacks the tackle. Then T.J. Watt (#42) and also Leon Jacobs (#32) come late over to where Edwards feigned a blitz to overload that gap. The Broncos protection scheme works pretty well with the guard initially blocking Edwards and even pancaking him then helping to pick up Jacobs when he arrives.

The problem is that the overload succeeds in firing Watt through to be picked up by the RB and that’s a grievous mismatch that Western Michigan can’t hope to survive. Watt blows through the RB and easily runs down the Bronco QB for the sack.

This is the sort of scheme that Wisconsin has been engraining into their program on defense. They have two linebacker coaches committed to ensuring a constant supply of versatile hybrids at the position with the inside-backers taught by former OL coach Bob Bostad and the outside-backers by Tim Tibesar. Their 2017 unit returns four players that saw a lot of action a year go, including walk-ons Jack Cichy and Ryan Connelly, but has to figure out which player to emphasize on the blitz with T.J. Watt joining his brother in the NFL.

Walk-ons on the back end

It’s ironic that that the 5’8” 188 pound Jim Leonhard immediately took over a secondary at Wisconsin led by Leo Musso, who is virtually the exact same size and was on the path to be a walk-on hero like Leonhard until a scholarship spot opened just before signing day.

In 2016 Musso was a redshirt senior that had been waiting his turn and ended up leading the most productive Badger secondary of this decade:

Tindal was technically the second cornerback but they’d use him to lock down the slot in man coverage in their nickel package while bringing in converted safety Lubern Figaro to man the field corner, which at times can be a sort of safety/corner hybrid spot anyways.

Leonhard had this group mixing cover 4 and cover 3 schemes with a few different leverages and matchup assignments. They were generally well supported by the front and Leonhard avoided getting defenders caught in run/pass conflicts. The Badgers would regularly try to disguise their coverages with late safety shifts and the fact that they could zone blitz up front allowed them to mix cover 4 and cover 3 even when bringing one or more blitzers since both outside-backers could drop and play coverage.

Safeties Musso and Dixon were primarily support players that could appear after the snap in places the QB didn’t expect based on pre-snap alignments, hence their nine combined interceptions. It was all too easy for them to dance back and forth between their two main coverage calls and cause confusion. Their main calls included everyone’s favorite cover 4 combo (2-read to the field and robber to the boundary):

And then cover 3 typically dropping whichever safety was over the the TE:

When you combine all the possible pass-rush combinations up front between the four linebackers with the variations on the back end you end up with something that becomes very complicated very quickly for a collegiate offense to unlock.

Beyond the interceptions that can ensue (and Wisconsin finished second nationally in interceptions with 22), it becomes hard to hit weak spots or to call runs where the offense is at advantage when no one has a clear idea of where the safeties and linebackers will be after the ball is snapped.

Leo Musso was clearly the mastermind on the back end last year, hence his team MVP award, and the Badgers will need to replace both his playmaking and his ability to direct traffic. They may not start a walk-on in the secondary this coming year (or it might) but it looks like their defense will be directed by one in Leonhard for years to come.

Wisconsin walk-ons are known for being undersized or overlooked, multi-sport stars who scrap and study to gain an edge on their competition and often prove rather versatile on the field. Now their defense is designed to take those attributes and form a complex, versatile system that has given the Badgers an edge on their competition in the Big 10.