For as much familiarity as Hank Poteat has with the University of Wisconsin football coaching staff, there’s still a good amount of learning to do as he joins the Badgers.
“This is a whole new defensive staff,” Poteat told reporters Thursday. “Most of the defensive staff, I don’t know.”
Poteat was announced Thursday as the Badgers’ new cornerbacks coach, reuniting him with head coach Paul Chryst, for whom he served as a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh in 2013-14. It also signals a splitting of duties between Poteat and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who had also coached defensive backs.
Poteat is in the 11th year of his coaching career after playing 10 years in the NFL. The Pittsburgh alum was previously the cornerbacks coach at Toledo and has coached at Kent State and Kentucky Christian. Five of the Badgers’ assistants — offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, special teams coordinator Chris Haering, defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej, tight ends coach Mickey Turner and Poteat — coached with Chryst at Pittsburgh.
“When you see familiar faces, it always helps with the transition. I think that’s (true) with anybody,” Poteat said. “Seeing a familiar face, knowing that you have some support. My wife, she knows a lot of the coaches’ wives. Just having that support allows you to feel comfortable.”
He won a Super Bowl with the 2004 New England Patriots after joining the team late in the season and played for five teams in his NFL stint. He tallied 199 total tackles and four interceptions in his time as a pro. Playing corner, kick returner and special teams in the league gives Poteat a depth of knowledge to share with his players, and could be an asset to UW’s special teams.
Poteat's hiring will take some responsibilities off Leonhard's plate, though Leonhard will continue to coach safeties, the position he was a three-time All-American at for UW before playing 10 years in the NFL. Poteat said he was excited to work with Leonhard and although the two never played together in the NFL, he’d heard good things about Leonhard. He said they share philosophies on and off the field.
“Having the similar backgrounds, being on the same page when it comes to dealing with young people, mentoring them, developing them as football players,” Poteat said. “I was excited and wanted to get the opportunity to work with him.”
Leonhard was offered the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator position late last week, but turned it down. Now, he’ll have a smaller position group to tend to as he runs the defense, one which has been among the nation’s best.
In his five seasons on staff, the last four as defensive coordinator, the Badgers have the third-best scoring defense in the FBS (17 points per game allowed), the second-best total defense (294.5 yards per game allowed), the second-best passing efficiency defense (109.7) and the second-best third-down defense (30% conversion rate allowed).
Poteat inherits a cornerback group with a good deal of experience, especially in starters Faion Hicks (33 games played) and Caesar Williams (35), but one that struggled at times last season. Downfield completions hurt the team against Iowa and Northwestern, and the corners struggled to keep contain on Wake Forest’s wide receivers in the first half of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
“I’ve been spending a lot of my time with Jim watching one-on-ones, watching games,” Poteat said. “I look forward to being able to just add some tools to their tool belt. I’m here to help them get better and here to help coach Leonhard, whatever he needs me to do.”
In the past, Poteat said he’s mainly recruited Michigan, southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, and he said he has a good base of relationships there.
When recruiting cornerbacks, he said he looks for a player who has an aggressive mindset capable of being aggressive in coverage.
“Guys that have the mentality to be able to process and not allow circumstances or situations to dictate how they approach the game,” Poteat said. “Sometimes different things, setbacks can cause guys to not play with the same confidence or have that same approach.”
Poteat’s addition to the staff comes after a couple of shakeups this offseason.
Jon Budmayr, a former UW quarterback who had been the quarterbacks coach for the past three seasons, left the Badgers to become the offensive coordinator at Colorado State. Former defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield left for the same position at Vanderbilt. Kolodziej, who was the program’s head strength coach, was replaced by one of his assistants, Shaun Snee.
Budmayr’s QB position will not be filled, as UW has filled its allotment of assistant coaches.
“I'm excited to be working with Hank again,” Chryst said in a statement. “He’s a tremendous person and a great coach. I’m really fired up for our players to get the chance to be coached by Hank because I think he’s a terrific teacher and will really connect with our guys.”
Badgers defense has chance to remain one of nation's best
Badgers' defense has chance to remain one of nation's best
On the roster: Michael Balistreri (RS Jr.), Keeanu Benton (Soph.), Boyd Dietzen (RS Soph.), Matt Hennigsen (RS Jr.), Rodas Johnson (RS Fr.), Cade McDonald (Fr.), Gio Paez (RS Fr.), James Thompson Jr. (Fr.), Bryson Williams (Jr.)
Incoming: Mike Jarvis
Departing: Isaiahh Loudermilk (NFL), possibly Rand (NFL)
Projected starters (end, nose tackle, end): Rand, Benton, Henningsen
Loudermilk’s departure might be the most impactful loss of the offseason for the Badgers. He was a stud on the defensive line and was able to play as effectively in base as he was nickel.
But the group has experienced players ready to play next year — Rand (above) was Loudermilk’s running mate for years, Benton has shown flashes of being a big-time playmaker, and before an injury last season, Henningsen was a solid piece of the end rotation.
Thompson and McDonald saw the field as freshmen in 2020, but Thompson suffered a season-ending right leg injury against Michigan, so his status for the offseason is unknown.
Depth may be a concern with this group moving forward, but they’ve got a solid top group to lean on.
On the roster: Noah Burks (RS Sr.), C.J. Goetz (RS Soph.), Izayah Green-May (RS Jr.), Nick Herbig (Fr.), Kaden Johnson (Fr.), Spencer Lytle (RS Fr.), Riley Nowakowski (Fr.), Marty Strey (RS Soph.), Aaron Witt (Fr.)
Incoming: Ayo Adebogun, TJ Bollers, Darryl Peterson
Departing: Possibly Burks (Graduation)
Projected starters: Burks (Replaced by Witt if Burks leaves), Herbig
Herbig (above) coming in and earning the starting job opposite of Burks was a surprise this season, but he proved he belonged by playing with a high motor. Goetz got more playing time than expected and he was able to provide some depth, but the young group of Johnson, Witt and the incoming freshmen will likely push for reps next year.
Witt is physically-gifted rusher and tallied a sack in the Duke's Mayo Bowl. A full offseason of preparation should do wonders for him.
Bollers is a four-star prospect that defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard called an “outside linebacker-plus.” Leonhard sees a versatile role for Bollers, and that could start next year.
A big question mark is what the Badgers can get out of Green-May. He missed the year with a right arm injury.
On the roster: Leo Chenal (Soph.), Ross Gengler (Fr.), Tatum Grass (RS Fr.), Mike Maskalunas (RS Sr.), Maema Njongmeta (RS Fr.), Malik Reed (Fr.), Jack Sanborn (Jr.), Jordan Turner (Fr.), Preston Zachman (Fr.)
Incoming: Braelon Allen (could also play safety), Jake Chaney, Jake Ratzlaff, Bryan Sanborn
Departing: Possibly Maskalunas (Graduation)
Projected starters: Chenal, Sanborn
Sanborn’s return to the Badgers is a massive win for UW’s defense. Keeping Sanborn and Chenal together for another season provides a cornerstone for the defense to build around.
It’s a young group behind those two, but they took strides this season in practice. Chenal and Sanborn rarely, if ever, leave the field, so getting backups ready in case of injury would be the primary concern.
The recruiting class at linebacker, highlighted by four-star prospects Allen and Ratzlaff, is impressive and helps deepen the group. Last season, inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad said he believed he had three players at his position he was comfortable putting on the field — it’ll be more next season.
On the roster: Donte Burton (RS Soph.), Dean Engram (RS Fr.), Deron Harrell (RS Jr.), Faion Hicks (RS Jr.), Max Lofy (Fr.), Semar Melvin (RS Fr.), Alexander Smith (RS Soph.), Caesar Williams (RS Sr.)
Incoming: Al Ashford III, Ricardo Hallman
Departing: Rachad Wildgoose (NFL), possibly Williams (NFL)
Projected starters: Hicks, Melvin
There are rightfully major concerns about this group going into 2021.
After playing well for the most part against Indiana, the corners struggled against Iowa, Minnesota and Wake Forest to end the season. Hicks (above) will be back and likely be a starter for a third season, and while the rest the group has experience, their level of play hasn’t been high.
Leonhard’s aggressive pressures leave the corners on islands often and they didn’t respond well to those one-on-one challenges, with penalties in the secondary being a key issue this year.
There will be a lot of competition for reps in this group — any step up in play from the younger group would be welcome.
On the roster: Travion Blaylock (RS Soph.), Dante Caputo (RS Fr.), Madison Cone (Sr.), Tyler Mais (RS Jr.), Scott Nelson (RS Jr.), Brady Schipper (RS Soph.), Titus Toler (RS Fr.), John Torchio (RS Soph.), Collin Wilder (RS Sr.)
Incoming: Braelon Allen (could play ILB), Hunter Wohler
Departing: Eric Burrell (NFL), possibly Cone (Graduation)
Projected starters: Nelson, Wilder
Replacing Burrell will be a tall task, as he was the most experienced player in the group, but the safety position has depth going into next year.
Toler, Torchio and Mais have gotten some snaps over the past two years, and there could be an opportunity for more rotation if Leonhard likes a handful of his options at safety.
Wohler was one of the top recruits in the class, a four-star prospect out of Muskego, but expecting immediate production out of him might be too much to ask.
UW’s safeties are asked to play in the box often, with Nelson and Wilder (above) providing good physicality as tacklers. They’ll need to find someone to take more of an open-field coverage role next season.
This story will be updated.