WESTFIELD, Ind. – It would be so easy to listen to the noise, buy into the hype and become distracted.
There is so much noise, incredible hype; enough to distract even the most grounded individual.
But we’re talking about Darius Leonard.
In the span of eight months, he was transformed from much-scrutinized second-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts to first-team All-Pro. From an ultra-productive linebacker at off-the-radar South Carolina State to uber-‘backer with the Colts.
He would lead the NFL with a franchise-record 163 tackles despite missing one game and playing much of the season with a bum left ankle that required offseason surgery, and become the first Colt selected Defensive Rookie of the Year since Duane Bickett in 1985. That was a decade before Leonard was born.
Again, so many reasons for Leonard to take a few minutes to sit back and admire his handiwork.
“No, not really,’’ he said as he headed into his second training camp at Grand Park Sports Campus. “Because I keep a little laser-eyed focus so I don’t really worry too much about outside noise.”
“I come in with the same mentality as I did last year. Just compete for a starting job and just be the best player I can be.’’
That laser-eyed focus is rooted in Leonard’s upbringing. So many life moments drove home one point: things can change in the blink of an eye.
The lesson learned? Take nothing for granted.
Leonard was one of nine children, all basically raised by their mom. Two of his brothers are in prison, serving life sentences. Another brother, Keivonte Waters, was killed in a fight at a nightclub. He was 19, two years older than Darius.
Another brother, Anthony Waters, was rising star at Clemson.
“After his junior year he was going to be a top-10 pick,’’ Leonard said.
However, Waters suffered a torn ACL in the first game of his senior season. He recovered and was a third-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in the 2007 NFL Draft. Waters was part of the New Orleans Saints bunch that beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, but was out of the league after 2010.
Just like that.
“Every time I look at football, I look at life,’’ Leonard said. “I know how quick life can change. I’ve got two brothers incarcerated and one deceased. I don’t take nothing for granted.”
“I mean, I keep my focus just seeing what my brother went through. His life changed in one play and I know how quickly this game (can end). You’re an injury away from not playing this game anymore.”
“I always remain humble and just keep trying to play each play to my best ability.’’
Leonard is humble, but also goal-driven to the level that matches his Maniac nickname.
“I want the Pro Bowl,’’ he said. “I want a Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP, 200 tackles, 10 sacks. The list goes on.’’
He’s also mentioned graduating from Defensive Rookie of the Year to Defensive Player of the Year.
“Just knowing the things that I accomplished last year, knowing that I have so much to learn from the tape that I have (from) last year,’’ Leonard said. “Just trying to get better and put more great film on tape.’’
Players generally make a significant jump from year 1 to year 2. They’re no longer making the difficult transition from college to the NFL. They’re no longer simply learning the playbook. They’re able to rely more on their instincts and play quicker.
In Leonard’s case, he set the bar extremely high as a rookie.
“Yeah, yeah he did,’’ Frank Reich said. “He has set it as high as you can set it. It’s hard to imagine that he could’ve had a better year than he did last year, but he would he would tell you like anybody else – all the great players – there are a million ways you can get better.
“As good as he was, it’s crazy to think that – there are a million ways he can get better and he has to get better. I have heard him say that himself and we all know that is the way that great players think.’’
Part of getting better is Leonard playing lighter in year 2. He reported to his rookie camp at 235. He was 220 when he showed up Wednesday.
“I didn’t want to go over 225,’’ he said. “I want to use my speed, my athleticism. Just be able to run sideline-to-sideline all game. It’s the size of the fight in the dog.’’
Leonard also is focused on being more effective at getting off blocks.
“I tend to stay on blocks much longer than I expected,’’ he said. “Talking with (coordinator Matt Eberflus), we saw some things that I needed to work on. Kind of my plant, point and drive, making tackles inside out. Sometimes I overshoot a lot of tackles and I just use my athleticism and long arms.
“I’m about 220 so I’m not the strongest linebacker. I’ve got to use my hands a whole lot more than a guy maybe 240-250 who’s going to come down and give a good blow. I’m not going to go downhill and go blow-for-blow.’’
There’s one more item that keeps Leonard grounded: daughter Mia, who turns four months next week.
“Especially with a newborn, especially your first one, you want to be around them 24/7,’’ he said. “Having to come up here and not being able to see her for a couple of days, it definitely sucks. But it motivates you so later on in life, I can spend all the time with her I want.
“That’s going to motivate you every single day. The days that you don’t feel like you want to get up, you don’t wanna go work out, it’s just going to give you that extra motivation to kinda go out there and go get it for them.’’
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