MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) – When you grow up in a family of 16 siblings, you do whatever it takes to stand out from the crowd.
It helps explain the approach that helped Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal become one of college football’s most prolific tackles.
Chenal has a better career performance against Army and leads the Badgers with 42 total tackles despite missing Wisconsin’s first two games due to a positive COVID-19 test. LSU’s Damone Clark is the only player in a Power Five conference to average more tackles per game.
Chenal has seven half-siblings and eight siblings aged 12 to 39. He displays the same personality on the pitch that he often showed growing up with eight sisters and seven brothers.
Although he is not the oldest in his family, he is perhaps the most daring.
“When I was little I always tried to fight with them and stuff,” said Chenal, 12th oldest in the family. “That’s where I think I got all my energy and all my passion, just being able to compete with brothers growing up, still being physical with them, starting fights and everything.”
Wisconsin full-back John Chenal agrees with his younger brother on this.
“He was the kind of guy who pissed everyone off, whether good or bad,” said John Chenal. “He was starting to talk and getting loud. Next thing you know, we’re fighting.
“He has a way of making sure everyone is energized and ready to go. “
It’s true whether he’s in the backyard of his home in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, or in the middle of Camp Randall stadium. Wisconsin defensive end Matt Henningsen said earlier this season that Chenal “was playing a million miles per hour in every game.”
Chenal clocked a career-high 17 tackles – 2 ½ for loss – in a 20-14 win over Army last week. Army was leading 13-7 and had the ball within three minutes of time when Chenal sacked Jabari Laws and forced a fumble that teammate Keeanu Benton recovered at the Black Knights’ 1-yard line, establishing a touchdown.
“Leo makes these plays all the time, however,” said safety Collin Wilder. “That one just got revealed in the game’s biggest moment.”
Chenal says he wants to live up to the “Death Row” nickname that Wisconsin inside linebackers have worn for years. Of course, most of them didn’t bother to write those two words on their right arm like Chenal does before every game.
He even wrote it in layers with a Sharpie because his sweat had a way to wipe it off otherwise.
“’Death Row’ is a name that inside linebackers have long had – (Jack) Cichy, TJ Edwards, those great inside linebackers that have been around here,” said Leo Chenal. “It means tenacity, courage, hard work, just blowing people up. It’s something you have to earn, and it’s something I’m proud of.
This year, the inside linebacker duo of Chenal and Jack Sanborn are leading a defense that has helped Wisconsin bounce back from a disappointing start.
“Obviously we are playing each other well,” said Sanborn. “I just think we’ve played so much together and for so long we just understand what the other is going to do.”
The Badgers (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) have lost three of their first four games, but have won two in a row and remain in control of their destiny in the Big Ten West race ahead of Saturday’s game at No. 25 Purdue (4-2, 2-1).
The emergence of Chenal helped Wisconsin give up the second-lowest yards per game (225.8) of any Football Bowl Subdivision team, behind No.1 Georgia (207.1). The Badgers surrendered just 4.04 yards per game to place third nationally, behind Georgia (3.55) and No. 22 San Diego State (4.03).
John Chenal deserves some of the credit for his younger brother’s success. Leo Chenal believes that all those impromptu wrestling matches and feuds they had at home instilled the tenacity that made them quality football players.
“You get a little bit of blood sometimes,” said Leo Chenal, “but it has helped shape who we are.”