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Ted’s Talk: Seahawks should consider Jim Leonhard for defensive coordinator

There’s a darkhorse candidate for defensive coordinator in Seattle that ticks all the boxes no matter who ends up as the head coach.

Purdue v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

We don’t even have a new head coach for the Seattle Seahawks, yet here I am talking about a potential defensive coordinator?

Why yes, I am.

The Seahawks defense has been bad – likely the main reason behind Pete Carroll no longer holding the title of head coach in Seattle. As such, it needs fixing regardless of who is manning the sidelines for the Seahawks in 2024.

Attention Seattle Seahawks staff and/or front office personnel reading this article: for the love of God at least give Jim Leonhard a call when interviewing candidates for defensive coordinator.

Unless you’re from the state of Wisconsin or were a closet AFC fan from 2005-2014, you may not be familiar with Jim Leonhard. Here’s a quick recap to get you caught up.

Leonhard was an undersized walk-on with the University of Wisconsin from a very small town in Northern Wisconsin. He worked his way into a starting safety position, led the nation in 2002 with 11 interceptions and finally received a scholarship in 2004, his final college season. Leonhard – listed at 5’8, 188lbs – tied the Badgers school record with 21 career interceptions and held the Big Ten Conference record for career punt return yardage with 1,347 yards until that mark was passed in 2006.

He entered the NFL in 2005 as an undrafted free agent with the Buffalo Bills and made the 53-man roster. Leonhard bounced around the league, originally as an excellent special teamer before starting 59 games at safety from 2007-2011 with the Bills, Baltimore Ravens, and New York Jets. He played 10 years in the NFL and finished with 14 career interceptions over 142 games. Leonhard was inducted into the UW Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.

Not too shabby for a guy without a Division I-A scholarship out of high school – though I’m probably biased since Wisconsin is my home state.

So, why should he be a defensive coordinator candidate for Seattle? In 2016, two years after retiring from the NFL, Leonhard joined his alma mater as the defensive backs coach under Justin Wilcox. With Leonhard’s coaching, the Badgers secondary intercepted 22 passes, which was second in the FBS that season. Wilcox left to be the head coach of the California Golden Bears and Leonhard was named as the Badgers new defensive coordinator after just one season as an assistant.

Leonhard manned that position at Wisconsin from 2017-2022 and was named interim head coach after Paul Chryst was fired in 2022 following a 2-3 start, leading the Badgers to a 4-3 finish and bowl eligibility. Leonhard’s profile on the UW Badgers website is worth reading in full but allow me to pull out some statistics on how his defenses performed.

The Seahawks defense in 2023 was terrible at stopping the run. How about this nugget about the Badgers’ 2021 season?

Last year the Badgers reached a new level of dominance on defense. UW allowed just 239.1 yards per game, the third-best mark in school history and the lowest total at UW since 1954. That was the fewest yards allowed by an FBS team since 2011.

Led by Big Ten Linebacker of the Year Leo Chenal, Wisconsin set a school record by allowing just 64.8 yards per game on the ground, becoming just the second FBS team since 2008 to allow fewer than 70.0 yards rushing per game over an entire season. UW allowed just 2.12 yards per carry in 2021, tops in the country and best by an FBS defense since 2016.

Looks good, but maybe that means his defenses were weak against the pass?

In its first year under Leonhard’s direction in 2017, the Badgers’ defense ranked second nationally in total yards allowed (262.1 ypg), third in scoring defense (13.9 ppg), third in rushing defense (98.4 ypg) and No. 1 in pass efficiency defense (96.4).

Led by the Leonhard-coached secondary, UW gave up just 11 touchdowns through the air, picked off 20 passes and was one of only four FBS teams to hold opposing teams under a 50 percent completion rate. With a school-record 75 breakups to go along with their 20 interceptions, the Badgers led the nation with 95 passes defended.

Ok, but what about third downs? Could they pressure the quarterback?

In 2019, Leonhard’s unit posted four shutouts — the first Big Ten team to do so since 1962 — and set a school record by allowing opponents to convert just 27.2% of their third-down attempts. Led by 12.5 from consensus All-America outside linebacker Zack Baun and 11.5 from All-Big Ten inside linebacker Chris Orr, the Badgers smashed the school record with 51 sacks on the season.

Sure, that’s all well and good, but what about turnovers? You know Pete Carroll is all about the ball!

In Leonhard’s five seasons as defensive coordinator, UW has ranked among the nation’s top five in total defense and top 10 in scoring defense four times. During that time, the Badgers rank third in scoring defense (17.3 points per game), first in total yards allowed (284.8 yards per game), first in pass efficiency defense (110.5), third in rushing defense (103.4 ypg) and first in opponents’ third down conversions (30.5%). Wisconsin has forced 112 turnovers over that span, tied for fourth-most among Power Five Conference teams.

Oh. Oh my.

The defenses under Jim Leonhard excelled in basically every facet on that side of the ball with – I would argue – lesser talent than other big-time programs. Can you name any star defensive players from the University of Wisconsin currently in the NFL? I’m guessing the only one you’ve got is TJ Watt and he left UW in 2016, the year before Leonhard became the DC.

At this point, the most successful NFL player that he coached is likely linebacker TJ Edwards who was an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019 and now plays for the Chicago Bears. Leonhard’s defenses were stifling opposing offenses with the likes of Nick Nelson, Matt Henningsen, and D’Cota Dixon.

Seriously, look at this list of drafted players from Wisconsin that would’ve overlapped with his time as the DC.

Not exactly a “who’s who” of defensive stars. Leonhard got the best out of his players, something that’s been quite the opposite in Seattle where it seems that talent isn’t as much of an issue as execution.

So, what’s he doing now? Well, after Wisconsin hired Luke Fickell as their head coach last season over Leonhard, he stepped away from the program eventually joining the University of Illinois as a senior football analyst. Apparently, he’s holding out for a head coaching job (assumingly in college) and hasn’t been interested in vacant college DC positions at USC, Michigan State, and Penn State.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Leonhard wouldn’t be interested in an NFL coordinating position. In 2020, he was offered the defensive coordinator position with the Green Bay Packers but turned it down to stay at Wisconsin. Was his interest solely because it was the NFL team in his home state, or would he entertain other offers?

College football is different than the NFL but so many of the schemes and concepts are making their way into the pro game. Clint Hurtt had never been a defensive coordinator prior to manning that position for the Seahawks while Leonhard has a handful of highly successful years of experience as a defensive coordinator in a top college program. I’d lean on a guy like that to turn the Seahawks defense around.

Is he on Seattle’s radar? Maybe. John Schneider is from Wisconsin. Seattle drafted Devon Witherspoon from the University of Illinois, where Leonhard is now employed, and obviously the Seahawks had former Badger Russell Wilson at the helm for nearly all of Leonhard’s tenure as Wisconsin’s DC. The front office personnel have to at least be familiar with him.

An undersized former walk-on who lasted 10 years in the NFL, started as a secondary coach, and became a successful defensive coordinator…that’s the kind of guy that everyone can get behind. Seattle was basically the Island of Misfit Toys for much of the Pete Carroll Era. Why not continue that ethos and give Jim Leonhard a freakin’ interview to be Seattle’s defensive coordinator.

Please.