If you stay with athletics long enough you get the privilege of seeing an exceptional individual, one that is larger than life, come along every decade or so. When you start hearing about a football player that has been compared to the legendary Jim Taylor (Hall of Fame fullback, Green Bay Packers, 1958-66, and New Orleans Saints, 1967), there's the potential for something special. That's running back Brian Leonard from Rutgers University.
Leonard is largely credited with putting the Rutgers football program on the map. At running back, he starred. Then he did the almost unprecedented: Despite being touted as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, he stepped aside for sophomore stud Ray Rice and moved into the fullback position.
He didn't disappear in his new role. He was second-team All-Big East and won the coveted Draddy Trophy, the "Academic Heisman," awarded for a combination of academics, community service and on-field excellence.
Experts describe Leonard as one of the top all-purpose backs in college football. He was named starting fullback on the 2007 Senior Bowl North Squad, where he accumulated 16 yards rushing and 13 yards receiving; he finished third overall on the team in total yardage.
University of Pittsburgh linebacker H.B. Blades described Leonard as "a very, very underrated player... he's the best running back I've played against since I've been in college." Such players that Blades has faced include Kevin Jones (Detroit Lions), Julius Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Walter Reyes (Syracuse University) and Darius Walker (University of Notre Dame). Blades added, "That combination of power and speed is amazing. Some of the runs he makes in the open field, he can cut like a tailback. He jumps over safeties when they try and cut him, but then he runs over linebackers and defensive linemen. His combination of power and speed just makes him the best at what he does."
Leonard finished his Rutgers career ranked fourth in school history in rushing yards (2,779), fourth in rushing touchdowns (32), sixth in receiving yards (1,864), first in receptions (207), tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns (13), second in all-purpose yards (5,961), first in total touchdowns (45) and first in points scored (272).
Leonard is extremely athletic. He turned in a time of 4.49 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, which is exceptionally fast for a fullback and above-average for a running back. He has size (6-foot-1, 226 pounds), hands, speed, proven leadership, unselfish play and high character. In today's environment in the National Football league, that latter point will score big with teams and the commissioner.
For the position, he is an excellent runner with great balance and instincts. He has proven to be tough, strong and difficult to take down. He is also an excellent receiver and route-runner.
He is an above-average blocker that is known to be a hard worker. With his versatility, he could help the right team in a variety of ways.
On the negative side of the ledger, Leonard is a 'tweener that might not have a true position at the next level. He might struggle getting to the corner at the pro level and, therefore, might not do much damage outside. Some feel he is not a true lead blocker and that he is a bit small for that role. Other observers note he doesn't always stay low and is vulnerable to being pushed around as a result.
One of his trademark moves, the "Leonard Leap," will probably not fare well in the pros. The "Leap" is a maneuver in which he jumps over would-be tacklers.
When all is said and done, look for Leonard's positives to outweigh his negatives. He has been targeted by almost every draft expert and Web site to be the top fullback and, at the same time, one of the higher-ranked running backs. Look for him to land somewhere where he can be a combination tailback-fullback, and maybe even an H-back.
He is projected to be selected on the first day of the draft; some even speculate he could go in the first round, which is highly unlikely. Realistically, he is a third-round pick. The Philadelphia Eagles have been mentioned as a possible suitor, to complement running back Brian Westbrook. The New England Patriots might also select Leonard if he is still around in the middle rounds. The St. Louis Rams have shown interest as well.
Carland Whitaker, a graduate journalist, is a fierce competitor of fantasy football. A former high school football coach, he brings a unique "old school" philosophy and passion for the game. Carland has been a KFFL contributor since 2004.