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.”

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.