A year ago, Jim Leonhard hadn’t coached a day of his life.
UW coach Paul Chryst hired him as the program’s defensive backs coach in February of 2016 when Leonhard was just one year removed from finishing a 10-year NFL career.
After elevating the Badgers’ secondary in 2016, though, the 34-year-old Leonhard already proved himself enough for Chryst to choose him as UW’s next defensive coordinator. Leonhard’s promotion was announced Thursday afternoon.
"A year ago, if you were to ask me if this was going to happen, I probably would have laughed at you — not knowing exactly how it was going to go and how it would work out," Leonhard said in a UW release. "Paul brought me in and asked me if I was interested. He thought I was ready and he thought I could handle it. I was excited about the possibility and kind of wanted to see where I was at — if I really wanted to entertain the idea."
Leonhard said in the release that it took time for him to decide if he was ready and if it was the right time to make this type of jump this early in his career.
He said he feels very comfortable calling plays and designing a game plan, but the day-to-day operations like structuring practices and meetings would be a challenge.
Leonhard spoke to the media for National Signing Day on Wednesday and said "possibly" when asked if he thought he was ready to become the defensive coordinator after one year as a coach.
"The longer I thought about it," Leonhard said in the release, "the more excited I got about the possibilities and what could happen, and I jumped at the opportunity."
UW, after replacing three starters from the previous season, ranked 30th nationally in passing defense last year and tied for second in interceptions.
The Badgers focused their defensive coordinator search around those already in the program this time around, as outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar was also a prime candidate. The UW release noted Chryst spoke with defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield about the opening as well.
Tibesar, who also interviewed for the position last year before Wilcox was hired, said Wednesday that he was “absolutely” interested in being the Badgers’ defensive coordinator.
"I feel really fortunate with what we have in Inoke, Tim and Jimmy," Chryst said in the release. "In the end, I thought if it was from within, Jimmy would be the one that I felt really good with. ... You don't want it to come across that you don't believe in Inoke and Tim. It's quite to the contrary really."
The release said the Badgers will continue to play a 3-4 scheme under Leonhard, the same base formation used under Wilcox and former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
Leonhard’s new contract information has not been released, but Wilcox was set to make $950,000 in 2017 before leaving. Wilcox’s compensation package was a back-loaded, two-year deal that paid him $500,000 in 2016. Leonhard signed a compensation package last year that paid him $225,000 annually to coach the Badgers' defensive backs.
Along with approving Leonhard’s contract Thursday afternoon, the UW Board of Regents also went into closed session to consider amended additional compensation packages for Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. Information on changes to their contracts has not been publicly released.
The Badgers still need to hire a ninth assistant coach after Wilcox left the program. The UW release noted that Leonhard will continue to coach defensive backs, so the Badgers will likely be looking for a new addition to coach inside linebackers.