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Leon Jacobs on a mission in Madison

Posted: August 3, 2014 10:53 p.m.
Updated: August 3, 2014 10:53 p.m.

Golden Valley graduate and Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Leon Jacobs, right, runs down field during the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina on Jan. 1 in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Dave Stluka/Wisconsin Athletic Communications

In Santa Clarita, he was Leon the Phenom.

In Madison, Wisconsin, he’s had to start from square one.

Golden Valley High graduate Leon Jacobs officially embarks on his sophomore football campaign at the University of Wisconsin today when the team opens fall camp.

With a strong showing in camp, Jacobs could vault into a starting role as an outside linebacker. More than likely, given the competition of upperclassmen at the position, he’ll serve as a backup for the second straight year.

And that’s a role Jacobs says he’s perfectly fine with for now.

“I just want to play college football and hopefully with great efforts I’ll see where it goes from there,” Jacobs says.

This was the same kid who has gone most of his life being told how incredible of an athlete he is. He was a standout basketball player since age 6 and he became a football star during his one season at Golden Valley, where he transferred for his senior year.

That’s when he earned his “Phenom” nickname, among others. Teammates called him a man-child and coaches lauded him for his natural athletic ability and his size.

But a year playing for a premier college football program has been humbling for the 6-foot, 2-inch, 230-pounder.

He only played two years of organized football and, although he was impressive as a running back and linebacker with 847 yards and six touchdowns as a senior, he mostly relied on raw ability.

A year at Wisconsin has taught him the finer details of the game.

“The big adjustment for me was, am I going to be able to perform? Am I going to be able to run the plays fast enough? Fall camp was tough for me last year. I got through that,” he says.

Jacobs played in all 13 of Wisconsin’s games last year, including the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina, but he wasn’t a major part of the defense.

He had 5.5 tackles and one for loss on the season.

But the Badgers sent two linebackers to NFL teams this year — Chris Borland and Connor O’Neill — which leaves some openings for younger players like Jacobs to move up the depth chart.

Jacobs’ size and athleticism help his case, as well as his versatility.

“Leon is one of our guys that can play every down, first, second and third, and that’s such a huge added bonus when you go to say who’s on the field,” says Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

The blogs and the media that cover Wisconsin football tout Jacobs as a potential star simply because of his physical stature.

But that’s none of his concern. Right now, he’s still learning to play the game that he’s relatively new to.

“I don’t think it’s about being a star,” Jacobs says. “That’s good that they’re saying it, but it’s not about that.”

Instead, the last year has been about learning from experiences on and off the field.

He had to get used to a colder climate compared to the Santa Clarita Valley or Long Beach, where he grew up. And then there’s the adjustment to college life and time management.

One of his toughest lessons was learned the hard way when he was disciplined by the team in June for allegedly providing alcohol to a potential football recruit during a campus visit in December.

Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said Jacobs was disciplined, but didn’t go into specifics, according to a report by, a local media outlet in Madison.

Jacobs declined to comment on the situation, but said he was never the type to get into trouble growing up.

After a year of school and football thousands of miles from home, Jacobs has made his mistakes and learned the ropes of life as a student-athlete.

“He’s just a great athlete and such a natural athlete there are certain things that come real easy to him in the athletic realm, but there are other things like the mental side ... that he’s had to work on,” Aranda says.

At Golden Valley, Jacobs was the big man on campus. That’s all changed now that he’s playing for a team that won three straight Big Ten titles and played in three straight Rose Bowls from 2010-12.

Coming off last year’s 9-4 finish, Wisconsin is ranked 14th in the nation in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.

But Jacobs said he’s OK with being a small fish in a big, ice-cold pond up north.

That’s where he’s most comfortable.

“No specific goals,” he says. “I just want to go out to fall camp, make plays every day and see where that goes. I think for me always looking at the bigger picture takes me off path so if I just focus on the task that’s being done right now, I came here to do bigger things.”


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