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.”

Air Force football sanctioned for recruiting violations

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The Air Force football program received two years of probation from the NCAA and had its squad size reduced by 10 for four years as part of its sanctions for recruiting violations.

The penalties were announced Thursday after Air Force and four individuals reached an agreement with NCAA enforcement staff on recruiting violations. A fifth individual in the case has contested their role and will be heard by the committee on infractions.

The sanctions also include a fine and a reduction of 46 total official visits for the football program in the 2022-23 and `23-24 academic years. In addition, there’s a prohibition on unofficial visits in football from Sept. 1 through Oct. 12, 2022, and a reduced number of evaluation days this fall.

Air Force has around 115 players on its varsity roster, plus a JV team that all count as NCAA athletes and its roster size.

“The (committee) appreciates the parties’ efforts in working collaboratively together to reach agreement on the violations, levels, classifications, and significant and meaningful penalties,” Gary Miller, the chief hearing officer for the panel and president at Akron, said in a statement. “The panel also recognizes that Air Force has gone above and beyond in its overall approach to this case.”

In a joint statement, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark and director of athletics Nathan Pine said: “The U.S. Air Force Academy is pleased that our case has progressed to the point of the NCAA accepting our negotiated resolution. We will continue working with the NCAA on this ongoing self-reported case from the COVID dead period, as it’s our responsibility to ensure integrity of the institution, athletics department, cadet-athletes and staff.”

The Falcons are off to a 3-1 start and host Navy on Saturday to begin the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition. The trophy is presented to the service academy with the best record in the round-robin format.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”