No. 19 Wisconsin eager to show its defense can stay elite with new coordinator in charge

Wisconsin NCAA college football defensive coordinator Mike Tressel low-fives Wisconsin defensive end Rodas Johnson on the first day of training camp in Platteville, Wisc., Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. (Samantha Madar/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — This isn’t the first time Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Tressel has faced the challenge of building on the accomplishments of a popular predecessor.

That doesn’t make the task any easier.

Tressel is taking over for Jim Leonhard, whose Wisconsin defenses annually ranked among the nation’s best. Tressel is following the same advice that worked for him at his last job.

“You have to be yourself,” said Tressel, the nephew of former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. “Even when I came into the University of Cincinnati, (I was) following up a coordinator players loved and who did a great job. That’s a challenge. But authenticity, that’s recognized.”

Tressel became the defensive coordinator on Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati staff in 2021 following the departure of Marcus Freeman, who left for the same position at Notre Dame and eventually became the Fighting Irish head coach. Cincinnati improved from eighth to fifth in scoring defense and from 13th to 10th in total defense during Tressel’s first season as the Bearcats reached the College Football Playoff.

Now he again is working alongside Fickell at a new program.

While much of the attention surrounding No. 19 Wisconsin heading into Saturday’s season opener with Buffalo has focused on new offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s Air Raid scheme, an equally big issue is whether the defense can maintain its elite status.

Leonhard grew up in Wisconsin, joined the Badgers as a walk-on safety and developed into an All-American before playing 10 seasons in the NFL. Wisconsin ranked among the nation’s top five teams in total defense and top 10 teams in scoring defense four times in his six seasons as defensive coordinator.

After the midseason firing of Paul Chryst last year, Leonhard went 4-3 as Wisconsin’s interim head coach. Plenty of players wanted Leonhard to get the permanent head coaching position that instead went to Fickell. Leonhard is now an analyst at Illinois.

“I’m going to be myself,” Tressel said. “I’m not going to try and be Jim Leonhard. I respect the heck out of him. They respect the heck out of him. But that doesn’t take away from the relationship that I’m going to have with our guys.”

His players learned to embrace the new approach.

“There’s an element of just the reality of, hey, this is what it is,” linebacker Maema Njongmeta said. “Coach Leonhard’s not here.”

Then it was a matter of believing what this new defense could accomplish.

“Trust is a big thing,” safety Hunter Wohler said. “He came in and he explained that to us himself. He said that we’re not going to be a good team if you don’t trust the guys around you and you don’t trust us as coaches.”

Tressel’s track record made it easier to develop that trust.

Tressel worked on playoff teams at both Cincinnati (2021) and Michigan State (2015). Cincinnati allowed the fourth-fewest yards per play of any Football Bowl Subdivision team in 2021 and ranked sixth in that category last year.

“The staff being able to say, ‘If you buy into this, this is what will be the result,’ I think guys really liked what they were pitching us,” Njongmeta said. “That made it really easy to buy into.”

Njongmeta had a team-high 95 tackles last season for a defense that must find new playmakers following the exits of nose tackle Keeanu Benton and Associated Press All-America third-team outside linebacker Nick Herbig. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Benton in the second round and Herbig in the fourth.

Tressel has discussed “meshing the elite” by combining what worked at Wisconsin and at Cincinnati in recent seasons. He often used a 3-3-5 defense at Cincinnati. Wisconsin occasionally has shown a “dollar package” including six defensive backs this preseason.

“There were some elite things that have been done here in the past and also that Coach Fick and our defensive staff have done in the past,” Tressel said. “Our guys are handling them really well and are truly excited about it. It’s fun to watch.”

That excitement is evident on the practice field. The Badgers expect it to carry over to the games.

“When he comes in every day with the juice he brings and the knowledge of the game he brings, it’s hard not to trust him,” Wohler said. “As you become more and more comfortable with the coaching staff and Coach Tress himself, you build that trust. So now coming into Saturday, there’s no issues at all. Whatever he calls is what we’re going to run.”


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