Wisconsin defense faces major challenge in bid to stay elite

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MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin has boasted one of the nation’s stingiest defenses virtually every season since Jim Leonhard took over as coordinator in 2017.

Leonhard faces perhaps his biggest test in maintaining that standard this year.

Wisconsin must replace eight of the top 10 tacklers from a defense that allowed the fewest yards per game (235.3), yards per play (4.10) and yards per rush (1.99) of any Football Bowl Subdivision team last season. Leonhard welcomes that challenge.

“It’s been a fun spring,” Leonhard said this week. “A lot of coaching. Guys are putting it out there. They’re playing hard. They’re playing physical. They’re not always playing smart, just like any young team. It allows you to coach.”

The only returning players who started at least five games on defense for Wisconsin last year are nose tackle Keeanu Benton, outside linebacker Nick Herbig and defensive end Isaiah Mullens. Wisconsin must replace one of college football’s top inside linebacker duos from 2021 in Associated Press All-America second-team selection Leo Chenal and three-year starter Jack Sanborn.

Yet the Badgers say they still can be as stout as usual on defense. Wisconsin is finishing spring practice Friday as it prepares for its Sept. 3 opener with Illinois State.

“Expectations, I feel like, shouldn’t change,” Benton said. “We’ve still got the same coaches. We still have the same motive. We still have the same goals.”

Leonhard’s presence gives them reason to believe.

A former star safety at Wisconsin who played 10 seasons in the NFL, Leonhard has developed into one of college football’s top assistants since joining Paul Chryst‘s staff. Wisconsin has ranked first in total defense (284.8), second in pass defense (181.4) and third in run defense (103.4) and scoring defense (17.3) over Leonhard’s five seasons as coordinator.

“We’ve got Jim Leonhard, so my confidence is high,” safety John Torchio said. “He speaks for himself with his track record here. We have the talent. We have him. So I’m confident we’re going to be a typical Wisconsin defense.”

If Wisconsin is going to have its typically dominant defense, plenty of unproven performers will have to step up.

Herbig should be one of the Big Ten’s top defensive players this fall after collecting 14 + tackles for loss and a team-high nine sacks last season. Benton has started two dozen games over the last three seasons.

But they’re the exceptions.

In some respects, this compares to the situation Wisconsin faced in 2018 when its defense had to replace four draft picks from a team that went 13-1 a year earlier. That 2018 team also dealt with key injuries and ranked 29th in total defense, the only time the Badgers have finished outside the top five during Leonhard’s tenure as coordinator.

Wisconsin now has to replace even more firepower but also has the benefit of pursuing transfers who wouldn’t have to sit out a year.

The Badgers capitalized by adding three transfer cornerbacks in Justin Clark (Toledo), Cedrick Dort (Kentucky) and Jay Shaw (UCLA) to make up for the departures of Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams, who combined for 70 career starts. Those three transfers have been working alongside fifth-year senior Alexander Smith.

“That’s where the transfer portal changes things enough,” Leonhard said earlier this spring. “You don’t have to go from experienced to non-experience in today’s football. . We knew we needed depth. We didn’t have to go as young as we did in the past.”

Wisconsin hasn’t ruled out going back to the transfer portal to address the safety position, where depth is a major concern following a leg injury to Travian Blaylock this spring.

The Badgers also will miss the playmaking ability of Chenal and Sanborn at linebacker. The crowded list of candidates competing at those spots includes Jordan Turner and Tatum Grass among others.

Wisconsin will spend the rest of the offseason trying to identify the next playmakers on its roster who can continue the Badgers’ recent tradition of excellence on defense.

Leonhard looks forward to discovering which guys take that leap.

“I like the group,” Leonhard said. “It’s a really fun group to coach – very hungry, very motivated.”

Minnesota football players’ discrimination lawsuit dismissed

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by nine former University of Minnesota football players who were accused of sexual assault in 2016 in a case that roiled the school’s football program.

The lawsuit against the school claimed that the players faced emotional distress and financial damage after being falsely accused of being sex offenders. The players, who were identified in the lawsuit as John Does, sought unspecified damages for willful and malicious discrimination.

A woman alleged up to a dozen football players raped her or watched and cheered at an off-campus party in 2016. None of the players were ever charged.

The university found that 10 football players committed sexual misconduct. Five of them were expelled or suspended for violating student conduct codes, and the others were cleared on appeal.

In their lawsuit, the players alleged that the woman initiated the sexual encounters with players and an underage recruit.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank dismissed the lawsuit last week, saying the former players did not prove any of their claims, including allegations of bias by university investigators or pressure from Athletic Director Mark Coyle and former President Eric Kaler, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

David Madgett, an attorney for the players, said Tuesday that they are considering an appeal but have to determine if it makes sense financially and in terms of letting the former players get on with their lives. He said it was disappointing that the outcome was determined by the judge’s version of events and not decided by a jury.

“It’s disappointing to see disputes decided in this way,” Madgett said. “That’s the way things are decided more and more these days. … It’s disappointing you don’t get your day in court.”

When the allegations became public in 2016, players threatened to boycott the team’s trip to the Holiday Bowl. But after a graphic report of the investigation was released, the players agreed to play in the game.

University of Minnesota spokesman Jake Ricker said the school appreciated the judge’s decision affirming the actions taken in the case. He said the university would continue its work focusing on sexual misconduct awareness, prevention and response.

Frank dismissed the lawsuit in 2019, but an appeals court reinstated part of it in 2021 and returned it to Frank.

The players, all of whom are Black, also initially claimed racial discrimination, but that claim was previously dismissed.

The only remaining claim alleged Title IX gender discrimination. The former players noted that they never faced criminal charges, but Frank’s ruling said that “is certainly not evidence of a judicial adjudication or that plaintiffs ‘were proven innocent.'”

The men also claimed that an investigator for the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action used “manipulative tactics” with them in interviews and that their accuser helped draft the report. The players also alleged that “prior failed investigations motivated” the the school to punish them.

Frank said all the claims were unsupported by the evidence and “no reasonable jury could find that the University disciplined plaintiffs on the basis of sex.”

Michigan State player who swung helmet gets probation

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A Michigan State football player who swung his helmet at a Michigan player in a stadium tunnel expressed regret Tuesday and said he’s “just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue” on the field.

Khary Crump, a defensive back, was sentenced to probation. He was one of seven Michigan State players charged in a skirmish that followed a loss at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 29.

Crump was the only Spartan facing a felony, but that charge was dismissed in an agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanors. His record will be scrubbed clean if he stays out of trouble while on probation.

“Unfortunately, an exchange of words (took place), I felt attacked and unfortunately I did what I did,” Crump said of the tunnel altercation involving Michigan’s Gemon Green. “I’m not proud of that. I’m looking forward to moving forward.”

Crump was suspended by coach Mel Tucker. In addition, the Big Ten has suspended him for eight games in 2023.

“I had difficulties trying to stomach my actions … on that fateful day, but it happened. I can’t take it back,” Crump told MLive.com after the court hearing. “Honestly, I’m just looking forward to wuppin’ some maize and blue in the future — on the football field, of course.”

At least four other players charged with misdemeanors Will Likely have their cases dismissed in exchange for community service and other conditions. The cases against two others are pending.