Badgers’ Leonhard a solid threat

Aaron Blake

Minnesota football coach Glen Mason did his best Rhys Lloyd imitation Tuesday, going through the motions while talking about how the punter couldn’t help but take a few steps right and kick the ball like the soccer player he is.

The sky-high punts, line drives and near-blocks that have occasionally resulted from Lloyd’s unorthodox style are enough to make any coach flinch.

On Saturday, the coach who admits he is paranoid about punting situations will have another reason to cringe on fourth downs because Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard will be waiting about 40 yards downfield.

The 24th-ranked Gophers (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) play Leonhard and the Badgers (6-3, 3-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Metrodome.

The 5-foot-8-inch, 183-pound free safety is sixth in the nation and first in the Big Ten at punt returns, averaging 15.3 yards per. He has also gone the distance twice this season, and the Badgers as a team have three punt returns for touchdowns.

That frightens Mason more than anything.

“You look at the two top punt return teams in the league, and there’s Wisconsin and us,” Mason said. “They’ve had three punt returns for touchdowns; we’ve had zero. It’s kind of amazing.

“Any guy who returns three punts for touchdowns in his career scares me. Three touchdowns (as a team) in one year on punt returns makes me very nervous.”

Mason insists that his team already spends a lot of time practicing punt coverage, and that there’s not much more it can do.

But Leonhard’s prowess doesn’t end with his role as a punt returner. The junior is also first in the Big Ten and 12th in the nation with five interceptions.

Last year, he tied a Big Ten record with 11 picks as a walk-on. He was also named first-team All-Big Ten and third-team All-American.

Now on scholarship, his performances at both safety and punt returner this season have earned him Big Ten player of the week honors.

Against Penn State on Oct. 4, Leonhard returned a punt 65 yards for a score and was named special teams player of the week. At Northwestern on Oct. 25, he had 19 tackles, a sack and an interception, earning defensive player of the week honors.

“Jimmy is having another excellent year,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “He’s very productive. His position is not quite the same as it was a year ago, and he probably hasn’t had as many opportunities for interceptions. Yet, he’s been very productive in that way.”

The interceptions and the touchdowns are goals of any defensive or special teams player, but what really says something about Leonhard’s progress as a player is the 19 tackles against the Wildcats.

With the big play part of his game down now, Leonhard’s aim this season has been on improving his tackling and other aspects that make him a more complete player. This goes hand-in-hand with his switch from strong safety to free safety.

But despite Leonhard’s evolution into a more complete player, Minnesota players and coaches insist he doesn’t change the game that much.

“He’s just a great athlete,” Gophers quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq. “Not to take anything away from him, but he’s just a guy back there making plays. He’s not going to dictate where we throw the ball. He’s not going to change our passing game. But you definitely have to be wary of him.”

Much like Abdul-Khaliq and Mason, Gophers tailback Laurence Maroney said his team can’t overemphasize one player in an 11-man defensive unit who returns a few punts.

“You don’t want to just focus on one guy, because it’s a team,” Maroney said. “One man can’t run the show, but he does stand out and he’s a big part of their defense. So we do know what he’s capable of doing.”

Davis to miss game

Alvarez announced Wednesday that star tailback Anthony Davis will miss Saturday’s game because of continuing problems with an ankle injury he first suffered against the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on Sept. 13.

Davis tweaked his ankle against Northwestern, but had hoped the team’s bye last Saturday would give him extra time to heal for Saturday’s game.

Fans will now be unable to find out if the Minnesota defense could live up to the guarantee that defensive tackle Darrell Reid made Tuesday, saying Davis would not rush for 100 yards.