Leonhard doesn't look like the big hitter he is
By Brian Delaney • email@example.com • Staff Writer • August 3, 2009
CORTLAND - First-year Jets coach Rex Ryan has no shortage of one-liners to describe one of his favorite players, Jim Leonhard.
Since signing with the Jets in March, the 5-foot-8, 186-pound, baby-faced safety has drawn sarcastic comparisons from his coach to a newspaper delivery boy, a high school reserve and an accountant.
Not exactly the depiction NFL safeties typically garner.
"You'd never think this guy plays safety in the NFL," said a smiling Lito Sheppard on Sunday, following the Jets' morning practice at SUNY Cortland. "Jim is a deceiving guy, and I think a lot of people judge him before they actually see him."
Only seeing is believing in Leonhard's case, which began on the playing fields of Flambeau High School in Tony, Wisconsin.
A two-way star as quarterback and safety, he received exactly zero Division I scholarship offers and opted to walk-on to Barry Alvarez's program at the University of Wisconsin.
Despite winning a starting job as a sophomore, he didn't receive a full football scholarship until his senior year. He graduated as co-school recordholder in interceptions with 21.
After college, he signed with Buffalo as an undrafted free agent, and, in a sequence of events that bucked the longshot NFL odds, made the Bills' 53-man roster.
"That was tough," he said. "You know you're not going to get the same opportunities as a drafted guy or veteran. You have to come in and almost be perfect. Not perfect - you can't be afraid of making mistakes - but you know you can't make mistakes consistently. You can't make the same mistake."
Leonhard spent three years in Buffalo before signing a one-year deal with Baltimore in 2008. There, he learned under the watchful, humorous presence of Ryan. Instead of spending the season as a backup, injuries thrust the 26-year old into a starting spot opposite arguably the league's best safety in Ed Reed. He started 13 of 16 games, made 85 tackles, notched a sack and an interception while earning the nickname "White Lightning."
"He disguises coverages about as well as almost anyone outside of Ed Reed in this league," Ryan said.
When Ryan was hired by the Jets, Leonhard made it clear he wanted to follow and did so, signing a three-year deal worth as much as $6 million. Now, for the first time in his NFL career, he's attempting to hold down a starting spot rather than working to just make the roster.
With four interceptions in live play over the weekend, teammates, coaches, newspaper delivery boys, accountants- are all taking notice of No. 36.
"He's a real smart player," tight end Dustin Keller said. "A lot of times, he knows what you're going to do before you actually do it. You've got to keep him guessing. You have to hint that you're running one route when you're really not. You can't really say enough about him."
Leonhard said he loves the freedom in Ryan's defenses, which were a threat to score every play in Baltimore. The defensive unit has dominated the offense in the early stages in camp, although that's considered natural for this stage of the season.
Along with ex-Baltimore teammate Bart Scott, Leonhard is helping his new teammates grasp the nuances of their new defensive system. And his new teammates are learning not to underestimate him.
"He doesn't pass the looks test," Ryan said. "I mean, he's a good-looking kid. Don't get me wrong. But it's like, 'Wow-wee.' "
Said Leonhard: "You know people are doubting you and you know you have to prove yourself day in and day out. I've always taken that mentality even early in my career, when I was getting credit. You just have to go out there with the attitude that you have to outwork people."