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Open Jim: Would the Wisconsin football offense look different under Jim Leonhard?

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This seems like as good a time as any to thank you for reading — to many of you, contributing — to Open Jim.

The reception to this mailbag has been fantastic and I’m energized (and challenged) each week by the questions and feedback.

Before we get going with this week’s version, a quick plug for the Open Jim podcast. I was going to include the following question in the mailbag (or in the mailbag version of the podcast), but I decided to make it my Jim’s Gem because I thought the UW volleyball team deserved some attention heading into a critical final weekend of the regular season.

Here are the three other featured questions this week:

As a reminder, tweet me at @JimPolzinWSJ or email me at if you have a burning question you want answered for the mailbag.

Click this link to subscribe to BadgerExtra and this one to become a Wisconsin State Journal print and/or digital member. You’re also invited to follow me on Twitter and Facebook, where you also can join our Wisconsin Badgers fan group.

Finally, one piece of advice: Save room for dessert.

Great minds think alike because this was on the topics I was hoping to cover with Jim Leonhard if he officially is named UW’s coach.

But what the heck. I saw your question and decided to ask him about it Monday. And while Leonhard didn’t get too specific about an offensive scheme or system, I thought his answer was revealing in another way.

“I think that gets a little bit to your personnel,” Leonhard said. “What is our personality on defense? What are our strengths? Because I think it can change year in and year out. Obviously vs. a spread right now, we’ve got a lot of options, we can get to some unique things. But we've also been pretty damn good in the run game. So I think to me, it more goes with your strengths and who they have. Not all X's and O's are created equal.

“A little bit of the equalizer — the great equalizer right now in college football — is a quarterback that can run and a quarterback that can turn a bad play into a good play. That's always given us issues, as (with) most teams. You look around the country, anytime you can play perfect football and still lose, it's pretty frustrating. I don't know if I answered your question because I think it truly comes down to your personality and kind of what you're consistently doing well at the time, and if that matches up with the other team’s strengths, you feel good. If it doesn't, you're going to have to try to steal some place throughout the game.”

That’s a long answer, but to me the interesting part was about the type of quarterback that gives defenses the most problems and makes me wonder if Leonhard’s preference is to have a dual-threat quarterback running UW’s offense.

Stay tuned on that one.

We’ve already seen one big change: News conferences are more lively and full of insight. For as much as I respected Paul Chryst as a person and enjoyed our chats in non-interview settings, dealing with the media wasn’t something he seemed particularly interested in, and it showed. Leonhard, on the other hand, seems to enjoy answering questions and puts some thought into his answers.

But I’m guessing you had more in mind than media interactions when you asked this question.

So here’s another one: Leonhard hasn’t said this yet, but I think there’s a good chance the offense he'd want installed would look much different than the one we saw under Chryst. Now that might not happen overnight because UW has to build a system around its personnel, but I think Leonhard’s answer in the previous question is a good sign he'd want a mobile quarterback and would want to run a more modern offense if he gets the chance.

I’ve gone back and forth on this, but I think the job would have been posted this past weekend either way. UW had to get that seven-day window started so it ideally could have a coach in place by this coming Sunday to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail.

The optics would have been bad if the Badgers had lost to Nebraska, so maybe the job gets posted Sunday rather than Saturday night. But I just can’t see UW waiting another week to post it.

The Badgers becoming bowl eligible was a big feather in Leonhard’s cap, in my opinion, and doing that Saturday at Nebraska probably caused UW athletic director Chris McIntosh to let out a big sigh of relief.

A five-year contract is the norm at UW and I’d expect that to be the case in this situation as well if Leonhard is hired.

Keys to the game:

1. The usual for the Badgers. They have to limit — or preferably outright avoid — turnovers.

2. Contain Minnesota tailback Mohamed Ibrahim, who leads the Big Ten with 152.4 yards rushing per game and 19 rushing touchdowns.

We’ve entered the guessing-game portion of the Open Jim mailbag.

So here goes nothing:

Leonhard hasn’t said what type of offense he prefers, but I think he’d make some tweaks if he took over the program. Maybe not a complete overhaul right away, but I'd expect some changes on that side of the ball and staff changes would come with that.

I’d be shocked if tight ends coach Chris Haering is back next season if Leonhard were hired. And if Al Johnson returns for a second season, I wonder if it’ll be somewhere other than coaching running backs.

Offensive line coach Bob Bostad is a tough one for me. That group hasn’t lived up to UW’s standard (injuries didn’t help), and I’m not sure how much of that to put on Bostad. Making a change would lead to the third position coach in as many seasons at this spot, which is less than ideal. If Leonhard gets hired and changes up the offense, will it even be a scheme that matches what Bostad wants to do up front? I’m curious how this one will play out.

As for Engram, I go back and forth on this one. UW’s offense has struggled — again — and he deserves some of the blame. But did we ever get to see the true Engram offense? Was he handcuffed through the first five games by a coach who was involved heavily in the game plan? How good can a play-caller be if his quarterback and offensive line are underperforming in key games?

All questions that Leonhard would need to answer if he gets the job. Plus, Engram is due $1.1 million next season with a $1 million buyout. UW certainly could attempt to work a buyout deal with Engram, as it did with Chryst, that would cut down on that cost. Or maybe Engram sticks around and serves as a co-coordinator with someone who has more experience coaching quarterbacks joining the staff.

As for names, I’m not going there. Leonhard should have plenty of connections from his NFL days, or perhaps there’s someone who has caught his eye during his days as a defensive coordinator.

I might be willing to engage in national title talk if UW wasn’t in the midst of a three-season drought without winning a division title and a decade-long drought without winning a Big Ten championship.

First things first. UW needs to get back to the level where it even can belong in the same conversation as Ohio State and Michigan. Maybe then we can entertain College Football Playoff talk

Leonhard as a recruiter? We’ll see. He’s got charisma and the current UW players seem to appreciate that he relates to them, is blunt when needed and has some credibility as someone who played in the NFL for a decade.

I don’t see UW straying from being a developmental program. Yes, it needs to recruit more high-end high school prospects. Yes, it needs to use the transfer portal to plug holes. But a big chunk of its roster still has to be blue-collar prospects who are willing to put in the time to develop.

Leonhard actually addressed this topic earlier this week when my colleague Colten Bartholomew asked specifically about C.J. Goetz, a player who fits in the category of patiently waiting his turn and making an impact later in his career.

Leonhard’s answer was more than 300 words. I don’t want to steal Colten’s thunder here, so be on the lookout for that piece Friday.

Seasons are long and fans are bound to become unhappy with players at some point, especially at a position as important as quarterback.

But I think reasonable fans were pleased with Jack Coan’s 2019 season: 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions, second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency rating.

And Scott Tolzien’s 2010 season, when he completed 72.9% of his passes for 2,459 yards and finished sixth nationally in pass efficiency rating.

I’ll throw in one more in the last two decades: John Stocco’s junior season in 2005, when he threw for 2,920 yards (second only to Russell Wilson’s 3,175) and 21 touchdowns.

Interesting thought. I’ll go back to what Leonhard said at the top: A quarterback who can extend plays and turn nothing into something is so valuable, and Williams no doubt would have added a much-needed spark to this offense.

UW most likely wins the Big Ten West with Williams at quarterback. But I don’t think Williams would have made the Badgers a playoff contender. Still too many flaws on this team that even a blue-chip quarterback couldn’t have overcome.

I’ve used the phrase “kick the tires” so often over the last few months that readers are probably getting sick of hearing it. But here it goes again: UW absolutely should kick some tires in the transfer portal to see if it can upgrade that position or, at the very least, find someone to come in and offer Graham Mertz stiff competition for the job.

I thought it was telling that Leonhard volunteered after UW’s win over Nebraska that he had considered making a QB change at halftime. He believed a struggling offense needed a spark and considered giving Chase Wolf a chance, but Leonhard said the coaches liked the look in Mertz’s eyes and let him keep going.

Admitting that publicly tells me that Mertz’s leash is getting shorter with every shaky performance.

If healthy, yes. But Braelon Allen has been playing with an injured shoulder and limped off the field in the second half against Nebraska with what appeared to be a right ankle injury.

The good news is that UW has options if Allen can’t go or is limited. Chez Mellusi was a little rusty last week after missing four games with a wrist injury, but he got better as the game went on and ended up with 21 carries for 98 yards. And Isaac Guerendo has provided a spark in wins over Purdue, Maryland and Nebraska.

You may have heard since posting this question Sunday, but UW did appeal the Nick Herbig’s targeting disqualification and that appeal was denied by the NCAA's national coordinator of officials.

I haven’t had a chance to catch up with Chryst beyond a few quick exchanges of text messages. I don’t think he’s ready to talk in depth and I’m not going to hound him to do so.

But my guess would be that he’ll return to coaching in some capacity. He’s got plenty of NFL connections, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he landed there as an assistant coach or in a consultant role.

Wait, is this actually a thing? I’ve never experienced a Packers-Lions Thanksgiving, so I guess I’ve missed out.

I have to go with a traditional meal made my mother, Pat. My mother-in-law is a close second, though.

I’m Team Stuffing on this one. Full disclosure: I had to Google to see if there was actually a difference.

In case anyone is wondering:

I’ll occasionally drink pop, not soda.

I may stop by a bubbler, not a drinking fountain, to get some water.

My favorite place to relax is on the couch, not the sofa or, eww, the davenport.

Is neither an option?

Contact Jim Polzin at


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