Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur has heard the cries from fans of his team around the state of Wisconsin, and he is listening.
On second thought, probably not. He probably is just able to identify a really good, young coach when he sees one.
As the Green Bay Packers assemble a list of candidates for their open defensive coordinator position, a hot name on the minds of Packers fans is Wisconsin Badgers DC Jim Leonhard. A former safety for the Badgers, Leonhard played ten years in the NFL with five teams, largely playing for Rex Ryan and/or departing Packers DC Mike Pettine. Now, the Packers have an interview scheduled with Leonhard for early this week, according to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky.
Following his retirement from the NFL at the conclusion of the 2014 season, Leonhard took a year off to reset and acclimate back to college football, then took a job as Wisconsin’s defensive backs coach in 2016. After just one season in that position, Leonhard earned a promotion to defensive coordinator, while maintaining his duties as defensive backs coach. In his four seasons as DC, the Badgers have consistently fielded one of the best and most consistent defenses in college football. In three of those seasons (2017, ‘19, and ‘20), the Badgers finished in the top ten in all of college football in points allowed, with a high mark of 3rd in 2017.
Following the Pettine/Ryan philosophy, Leonhard runs a 3-4 system that would be relatively familiar to Packers fans and would likely fit the Packers’ defensive personnel well. While edge rushers like Leon Jacobs, Andrew Van Ginkel, and Zack Baun have starred in Madison and gone on to productive NFL careers, Leonhard’s defenses have also generated standout play from the inside linebacker position as well. T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, and Chris Orr have all gone on to play in the NFL, and Leo Chenal looks to be the next star inside ‘backer when he makes the jump to the pros in the future.
At 38 years old, Leonhard is rightfully viewed as a rising star in the coaching profession. As a Wisconsin native and Madison resident, the allure of coaching in the NFL may be easier to accept if it involves a short move to Green Bay.
Leonhard’s playing career, however, was a story of him constantly being underestimated. From tiny Ladysmith, Wisconsin, Leonhard joined the Badgers as a 5-foot-8 walk-on in 2001. Leonhard earned a starting job at safety and punt returner for his sophomore year, when he intercepted 11 passes and returned one punt for a touchdown. He would go on to record 21 total picks and three punt returns in his career, but went undrafted in 2005 before signing with the Bills as a rookie free agent. He would play in 142 NFL games over the next ten seasons, starting 73 of them and recording 14 interceptions, three forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, and 4.5 sacks.
The Packers are expected to interview several other individuals in the coming days. Look for more information about the team’s hiring process as this week goes along.