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Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has had tremendous success early in his coaching career.

Wisconsin mailbag: Possible successors for Jim Leonhard, hoops underclassmen most ready to make big leap

Jesse Temple

Have Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Wednesday for the Land of 10 Wisconsin mailbag to talk all things Badgers. This week, we discuss the Zeke Nnaji’s basketball recruitment, which hoops underclassmen could make a big leap, where things stand with Wisconsin’s cornerbacks and running backs and potential successors for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

Question 1

Answer: I wrote a story on Zeke Nnaji that ran two weeks ago and detailed his rise into a sought-after prospect in the 2019 class. Nnaji followed a familiar pattern when it comes to Wisconsin. The Badgers were the first high-major program to offer him a scholarship, and then the floodgates opened.

Nnaji, from Hopkins, Minn., earned offers last summer from Creighton, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. However, while playing AAU basketball this spring for D1 Minnesota, he has recent offers from Memphis, Oklahoma, Ohio State, St. John’s, Penn State, Purdue, UCLA, Illinois and Texas Tech. But there is something to the fact that Wisconsin identified his talent early.

“They saw a light in me before anyone else did,” Nnaji said. “They believed in me before anyone else. It definitely does mean a lot because they took a gamble and I’m just trying to prove that I deserve the offer that they gave me.”

Nnaji’s father, Alphan, said he intends to take Zeke to visit every school that offers him a scholarship so he can do his due diligence and make an informed decision. But I still think Wisconsin has a good shot with Nnaji given the relationships he has built there.

Alphan said the family has close friends who live in Madison and routinely visit the area. He described Madison as “almost like a second home.” Alphan said the Nnajis would return to Madison on June 10 because Zeke’s younger sister, Maya, will participate in a Wisconsin girls basketball elite camp.

There is obviously plenty that could change as Zeke Nnaji visits schools in the coming months. Wisconsin coaches will have to hope that forming relationships early will pay off in the end.

Question 2

Answer: Of the four players you mentioned, I will go with Kobe King and Nate Reuvers. Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice both will be improved players as well, but in terms of the most significant leap from last season, King and Reuvers are good bets.

King averaged 5.2 points in 10 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He didn’t perform as well as he did during the preseason and exhibition portion of the season, but he is the most versatile scorer among Wisconsin’s guards. Don’t forget that King was the Badgers’ leading scorer during the Red-White team scrimmage, as well as both exhibition games at home.

Reuvers held his own during his freshman season, even though he was supposed to take a redshirt. Reuvers burned the redshirt after five games and showed poise and toughness against stronger post players in the Big Ten. He started 15 games, averaged 5.3 points and 2.0 rebounds and finished third on the team in blocks. Reuvers should add muscle with an offseason in the weight room. He shot only 25.5 percent on 3-pointers, but when Reuvers develops more confidence and consistency, he’ll be another prototypical big man in Wisconsin’s offense who can score inside and out.

Question 3

Answer: When I released my post-spring practice depth chart last month, the two cornerbacks I listed as starters were Dontye Carriere-Williams and Madison Cone. I’ll stick with those two players until fall camp begins, when reporters will have another chance to watch practice and evaluate potential rotations. Having said that, Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams did enough in spring camp to show that they deserve to play, too.

Carriere-Williams is the most experienced player in the group after serving as Wisconsin’s third cornerback last season and tallying 30 tackles with 6 pass breakups. Cone appeared in nine games and recorded 1 tackle with 1 pass breakup. But that pass breakup came at the end of the Miami game in the Orange Bowl, and the fact coaches put him in showed he was next on deck for playing time. Cone did nothing to relinquish his place during spring camp.

Wisconsin’s secondary is young and lacks experience. But the group does not lack for confidence and made plays in spring camp to back up that feeling. Quarterbacks will surely test the back end, and we’ll see just how ready the Badgers are for the challenge.

Question 4

Answer: The operative words here are “if healthy,” of course. Taiwan Deal has battled ankle issues for two years. Bradrick Shaw is recovering from an ACL injury and didn’t have the same explosiveness last season as he did during his freshman campaign. If both players are healthy, they would factor into the running back rotation.

I spoke recently to Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle, who told me that star tailback Jonathan Taylor should expect to carry 20-25 times per game. That falls in line with where Taylor was at last season, when he averaged 21.3 carries per game. But it would be nice for Taylor and Wisconsin if he had more help.

If there’s a player who could alter the complexion of the backfield race, it could be incoming freshman Nakia Watson. Badgers coaches believe he has the physicality and mental makeup to contribute immediately. If he is as good as advertised, Watson could emerge as the backup tailback to Taylor, thus taking carries away from Deal and Shaw. But given how much Wisconsin likes to run the ball, the Badgers will need more than two tailbacks.

Deal, Shaw, Chris James and Garrett Groshek all have game experience for Wisconsin. The Badgers should be fine, regardless of who is taking carries behind Taylor.

Question 5

Answer: If defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard leaves for another position at some point, there would only be three other defensive coaches on staff to choose from in a hypothetical scenario where the hire is internal. Inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad has only coached on defense for one season after spending 27 years on offense. Outside linebackers coach Bobby April has only been with Wisconsin’s program for a few months but has been a linebackers coach in the NFL. Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield is entering his fourth season with the program and has done great things with the line but has never been a coordinator.

Leonhard’s story is unique because of how quickly he rose up the coaching ranks. He was Wisconsin’s defensive backs coach in 2016, and it marked the first official coaching job he’d ever had. By Year 2, Leonhard was defensive coordinator. Continuity on a staff is important, and Paul Chryst has shown he likes to hire people who understand and have familiarity with the program.

But Wisconsin also has elevated itself to a place where the program can attract exceptional external candidates. Leonhard will make nearly $1 million in 2018, which is a figure that was unheard of at Wisconsin just a few years ago. Wisconsin has the financial resources to pursue good coaches, and Chryst would owe it to himself and the program to explore all options for the best fit.

Have a question about Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting? Tweet us @Landof10Badgers and we’ll try to answer your question in a future mailbag. Check to see if your question already was answered by reading previous Wisconsin mailbags here.