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Badgers linebacker Leo Chenal describes return to field, fight with COVID-19

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CHICAGO — There was part of Leo Chenal that couldn’t help but be happy Saturday.

Chenal finally was able to get his junior season as an inside linebacker for the University of Wisconsin football team underway after he missed the first two games due to a positive COVID-19 test. With the bye week adding to his time off, Chenal was more than ready to get onto the game field.

But the competitive side of Chenal wouldn’t allow the happiness of playing to come through much after a 41-13 loss against Notre Dame. It didn’t matter that Chenal led the team in tackles or that he showed the disruptive nature of his play against a good team — what mattered to Chenal was a loss that he and other Badgers leaders called “embarrassing.”

The University of Wisconsin linebacker speaks to the media after the UW defense held the Notre Dame offense to 3 rushing yards Saturday in the Badgers' 41-13 loss to the Fighting Irish at Soldier Field in Chicago.

“I mean I felt like I personally had a slow start,” Chenal said. “I loved the whole atmosphere, but for me personally I had a slow start. Too many missed tackles and just a lot of things to learn from.”

Chenal had eight tackles, six of them solo efforts, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble in his season debut. His return was vital to the success UW’s defense had through three quarters against the Irish before turnovers gave Notre Dame short fields and it took advantage. Chenal’s forced fumble came against Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams when the Irish had the ball at UW’s 10-yard line, but Williams was able to fall on the loose ball.

“It was good to have him back,” senior inside linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “He’s my brother and I was happy to have him back. I thought he played well.”

Added senior safety Scott Nelson: “He was normal Leo — disruptive, flying to the ball, playmaker. Doing anything he can to help our team play better and help our team win. We know we’re going to get that every time.

Though he didn’t get any of the Badgers’ six sacks, Chenal provided valuable pass rush up the middle and on delayed rushes that contributed to the pressure Notre Dame’s quarterbacks felt.

Teammates said Chenal has brought his usual energy back to the inside linebacker group since he was able to begin practicing during the bye week. But Chenal said he could feel the effects of his COVID-19 recovery during the game.

“I probably was a little more tired than I should’ve have been,” he said. “It’s been two weeks. I’ll get better from there. Just working through it.

“I think the lungs can be a little better. No excuses. I’m going to play my hardest.”

Chenal said his COVID symptoms were mild and gone within a day after he tested positive on Sept. 3, the day before UW hosted Penn State in the season opener. Chenal has not publicly disclosed his vaccination status.

The most difficult part about isolating after his diagnosis was the inability to train, Chenal said.

“I was just doing a lot of maintenance, stretching. I got a little nauseous every time I tried to work out. Just working on little things, doing as much as I can without actually going full go,” he said.

From the way he spoke about his performance, Chenal made clear that it was just a start and he expects himself to be more productive going forward. After ranking second in tackles last season and leading the team in sacks, adding a healthier Chenal to UW’s defense will only help it continue to keep the Badgers in games.

Chenal getting closer to full strength will be imperative this week when the Badgers host Michigan at 11 a.m. Saturday. Not only because the Wolverines are 4-0, ranked in the AP Top 25 and are rushing for nearly 291 yards per game, but because the Badgers may be thin at the inside linebacker position. Senior Mike Maskalunas and redshirt freshman Jordan Turner were both unavailable against Notre Dame.

Multiple Badgers players discussed not allowing the lopsided score against the Irish to compound further by carrying it into next week, and Chenal said he’d be taking cues from the team’s leaders.

“It’s just about not looking at this game and giving up,” Chenal said. “It’s about building back because we know how good we can be. So we’ve just got to keep our chin up. But also apply pressure to ourselves. All of us (need) that sense of urgency.”


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