Jim Leonhard has his hands full this week preparing the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense to play No. 12 Notre Dame.
But the defensive coordinator for the No. 18 Badgers (1-1) said Monday he still found some time to study Fighting Irish safety Kyle Hamilton, who’s unanimously regarded as one of the best defensive players in college football and considered a top-five level draft pick next spring.
Leonhard, a three-time All-American safety at UW and a 10-year NFL veteran, echoed the rave reviews Hamilton has been getting from others in the sport.
“To me the most impressive thing is just the amount of ways that he makes plays,” Leonhard said. “(I) have a lot of respect for his game because he’s not that one-trick pony, where it’s like, ‘Hey, (he) does this one thing really well, and they’re smart enough to have him do it over and over.’ He’s making plays all over the field — run game, pass game, man coverage zone coverage, blitzing. It’s impressive to watch.
“You forget how big he is when you see how well he moves. Everything that he’s generating as far as buzz around him is earned. It’s fun to watch a guy like that play. Very instinctual on the back end, which is half of the battle. It is cool to watch. I hope he doesn’t make any plays this week, but high likelihood that he’s going to be somewhere around the football.”
Hamilton will be a person of interest for each UW offensive play during Saturday’s matchup at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior has the size and speed to fill a number of roles in Notre Dame’s defense. The Irish (3-0) trust him to cover large areas and almost dare quarterbacks to challenge him to break on a ball when he’s playing deep in a traditional safety spot. He also can roll into the box and serve like an extra linebacker or shift over to the slot and take away those options.
Hamilton has 22 tackles, two for loss, three interceptions and five passes defended through three games. His highlight plays this season include an interception along the sideline against Florida State — a play he started on the far hash mark and covered nearly 40 yards before making the toe-dragging catch — and a pick on a tipped ball in the end zone to seal the win last week against Purdue.
Hamilton has been targeted 17 times, allowing nine completions for 93 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. But opposing quarterbacks have a 29.4 NFL QB rating when targeting him after factoring in his interceptions and pass breakups.
How Notre Dame uses Hamilton this week could be a game-changing decision. Do the Irish leave him in the box and use him to take away tight end Jake Ferguson, one of UW quarterback Graham Mertz’s favorite targets? Do they have him cover receiver Danny Davis, another of Mertz’s top options?
Unlike a star defensive lineman or linebacker that the Badgers could scheme blockers for, it’s nearly impossible to game-plan around a player such as Hamilton. But coach and offensive play-caller Paul Chryst said Monday that despite how talented Hamilton is, the Badgers can’t hamstring themselves by trying to avoid him.
“You don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Chryst said. “And so I think that you’ve got to kind of build rules that it fits in. You play a good team, they’re going to have really good players. ... The good players, you know where they’re at, but you’ve got to be careful not to overcompensate.”
Mertz will have to identify Hamilton’s spot on the field each play, and center Joe Tippmann will have to account for him whenever he’s in the box and could be blocked by an offensive lineman.
Being smart with how and when they challenge Hamilton doesn’t mean the Badgers will be afraid of him, senior Kendric Pryor said. Pryor, a sixth-year receiver, has seen plenty of star defensive backs during his time at UW and knows that even the best make mistakes.
“You can go look at any sport, everyone doesn’t win every rep,” Pryor said. “Things happen. It’s just how you respond, how you keep competing. I consider myself a competitor. He puts his pants the same I put my pants on, we breathe the same air, we bleed the same.
“You know you’re going against a good team and a good player, so you just got to be ready to be on your ‘A’ game. I feel like I’m a good player, like we’re a good team. So we’re just going out there competing, which is something that I love to do.”