Rookie linebacker improving by leaps, bounds for Colts

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The INDIANApolis Colts figured Darius Leonard
would emerge as a defensive playmaker one day.

He skipped the learning curve.

Two weeks into his rookie season, the weakside linebacker leads the
NFL with 27 tackles, already has forced one fumble, recovered
another, had a sack and provided a new, dynamic dimension in the
Colts’ rebuilt defense.

”When we came here, there were only one or two guys (at
linebacker),” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said Tuesday.

”He was kind of thrust into that position and we treated him as
such. He’s grabbed that role, taken it and he’s done a good job
with it.”

Just how impressive has the 6-foot-2, 234-pound, 23-year-old been?

Leonard’s 18-tackle performance Sunday at Washington was the
fifth-best grade by a linebacker since Eberflus implemented his
points system in 1995.

Some view Leonard’s immediate impact as a surprise, but he was
pretty impressive in college.

Leonard set the career record for tackles (394) at South Carolina
State, a Football Championship Subdivision school largely
overshadowed by the state’s more prominent programs at Clemson and
South Carolina as well as Furman, the 1988 FCS national champions.

Twice he was selected as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
defensive player of the year and Leonard got his nickname
”Maniac” following a 19-tackle performance against Clemson in
2016.

The knock on him going into the draft was he needed more size and
strength to hold up in the NFL and time to make the transition from
small-school star to NFL contributor.

Colts general manager Chris Ballard saw it differently after
watching Leonard for one week in Mobile, Alabama, in January.

”You always want to watch the small school guys when you go to the
Senior Bowl because now they’re facing the bigger competition,”
Ballard said after making Leonard the first of Indy’s four
second-round draft picks in April.

”I thought he stood out. His speed, his athleticism, his ability
to cover. When the four ‘backers went, we thought Darius was the
fifth-best backer in the draft.”

Leonard certainly has played like it.

Despite missing all but one day of offseason workouts, Leonard
returned to the field when the Colts’ rookies reported in late July
and made a quick impression on the veterans.

”I think it was pretty much the first time you saw it, the first
practice of training camp when he caught the interception off of
Andrew Luck,” second-year linebacker Anthony Walker said.

”First of all, that’s a big-time quarterback there and that was a
big-time play. We knew right there – that’s why we drafted him.”

Leonard continued playing well during the preseason and his ability
to stay healthy allowed him not only to win a starting job, but
also the right to call the defensive signals in the huddle.

So far, he’s flashed the speed to make plays from sideline to
sideline and deliver game-changing ones, too.

But Leonard’s best attribute might be his attitude.

He’s eager to clean up mistakes, remains humble and enjoys breaking
down game tapes.

That’s hardly a surprise from someone who helped decipher prep
games so he could help coach players at his high school while he
was in college.

”I just work hard and just take coaching,” he said. ”That’s the
big thing, I take all the coaching I can get, follow all the
details and do all the little things.”

It’s made a huge difference in one of the league’s most
inexperienced linebacker groups.

Leonard, Walker and free-agent signee linebacker Najee Goode have
combined for 12 NFL starts – exactly half coming during the first
two weeks this season.

And, so far, Leonard has been the star with back-to-back memorable
performances that have surprised the doubters but nobody in the
Colts’ locker room.

”As a rookie, it’s hard to find someone like that – someone who
prepares the way he prepares. The things that he does really sets
him apart,” Walker said.

”He’s miles ahead of where I was last year and just the confidence
and stuff he plays with, he’s miles ahead of me.”

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