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Is Jim Leonhard’s job status a recruiting liability?
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard finished a sensational season in which he was a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coach in college football. Wisconsin ranks No. 2 in the FBS in total defense, No. 3 in scoring defense, No. 3 in run defense and No. 6 in pass defense.
That type of success, particularly for an up-and-coming coach such as the 35-year-old Leonhard, is bound to attract interest from other programs. But one question is: How much will Leonhard being a hot commodity on the coaching scene impact Wisconsin’s ability to recruit defensive players?
At least one potential prospect sees it as an issue. Defensive back Breon Dixon is seeking a transfer from Ole Miss and told Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald writer Sam McKewon that Nebraska’s defensive coaching staff has more stability than Wisconsin.
“Coach Leonhard’s a great coach, and I’m not sure he’s going to be at Wisconsin very long,” Dixon told McKewon. “He’s probably going to be a head coach soon.”
Dixon told McKewon that he would visit Nebraska on Jan. 12-14 and could transfer in time to begin classes for the next semester. Dixon’s two finalists had been Wisconsin and Nebraska, but he indicated that he might cancel his visit to Wisconsin, which he intended for the following week.
Leonhard’s rise up the coaching ranks has been swift. His first coaching job at any level came in 2016, when he served as the Badgers’ defensive backs coach. He took over for Justin Wilcox as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator before this season and quickly excelled.
Now he is a coach in demand. Florida State reportedly expressed interest in Leonhard serving as defensive coordinator. Leonhard, who played 10 years in the NFL, also could have options in the pros.
“I think I owe it to myself to entertain some phone calls and see what the interest is and where it is, [while] also knowing that I’m very happy with where I’m at,” Leonhard told reporters last week before the Orange Bowl.
“Wisconsin is home. I love the university. I truly believe everything on and off the field. I feel like we do it the right way. We’re not the only team doing it the right way, but we’re one of them. To me, the recruiting side of it, just everything outside coaching, I know I want to be in a place where you truly believe in the product, truly believe in the university. It’s one of those situations where I know I have that right now. It’s kind of a nice place to be.”
Leonhard tweeted this week about linebacker T.J. Edwards’ decision to return to school for his senior season. The tweet seemed to indicate Leonhard would remain Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator next season.
— Jim Leonhard (@jimleonhard) January 2, 2018
One of the more common pieces of advice coaches tell recruits is to make a college decision based on the school rather than a coach. That way, players are committed regardless of a coach leaving for another program. But that notion can be easier said than done, particularly for players who begin forming relationships with coaches as high school sophomores or juniors.
Wisconsin has managed to thrive defensively despite cycling through three coordinators over the last three seasons. But it is clear from talking to current players and high school prospects just how much Leonhard’s personality and football knowledge plays a role in them wanting to be at Wisconsin. Leonhard has earned nothing but positive reviews since he arrived on campus to coach.
How long Leonhard stays at Wisconsin remains to be seen. But it’s a good bet other programs vying for the same recruits will use Leonhard’s success — and potential future coaching opportunities — against Wisconsin.