By Justin Rodriguez
Posted: January 23, 2010 - 2:00 AM
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Just make plays.
Not Superman plays, Jets safety Jim Leonhard said, not ridiculous plays, just the ones you are supposed to.
That will get you noticed, said Leonhard, the quarterback of the top defense in the NFL.
He's the player the 10 other guys on that side of the ball call the smartest guy on the field, always studying film, playbooks, breaking down the opponent — the player who will likely play a big part if the Jets stop Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship on Sunday.
The thing is, Jim Leonhard wasn't ever supposed to be here, in this big spot.
"I would have been happy to just watch Jimmy play on Saturdays (in college)," said Darrell Gago, his coach at Flambeau (Wisc.) High School. "I understand that he was a longshot, but Jimmy just has a knack for shining at the right time. If there is an opportunity, he will take it. That's just Jimmy."
The 5-foot-8 Leonhard is coming off perhaps his best game of the season against San Diego in the AFC Divisional playoffs on Sunday. His interception of Philip Rivers late in the third quarter set up a touchdown that gave the Jets the lead for good.
And, with Leonhard calling the plays on defense, Gang Green frustrated and baffled Rivers, like they hope to do to Manning at Lucas Oil Stadium. He's become known for his toughness, his helmet often popping off on impact plays. Leonhard, playing with a broken right thumb, also absorbed an accidental kick to the back of the head against San Diego.
"Jim, being on this team is great," Jets linebacker Bryan Thomas said. "First of all, the guy knows the defense. He's studying all the time and he's always in the right position because of that. Jim is just intense, always running around, high-fiving, shoving people, pushing people. That's the type of guy we need for motivation."
Added Jets cornerback Lito Sheppard: "We knew what we were getting when we brought him in (from Baltimore) and Jim hasn't disappointed anyone. He's just so intense."
Still, entering his senior year at Flambeau High, Leonhard had no offers from NCAA Division I schools, just interest from Division II Minnesota-Duluth in football and baseball. Gago brought him to a University of Wisconsin summer camp that summer and Leonhard ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash.
"One of (then Wisconsin coach) Barry Alvarez's coaches walked over and showed him Jimmy's time," Gago said. Alvarez didn't believe him.
Leonhard ran the 40 again for Alvarez, this time in 4.3. He intercepted six passes, returning them all for touchdowns, during a scrimmage at the camp. Alvarez offered Leonhard preferred walk-on status.
Leonhard was a starter by his sophomore year, leading the nation with 11 interceptions. Still, he didn't earn a full scholarship until his senior year.
"I've never questioned my ability, but you never knew what was going to happen," Leonhard said. "You're just trying to have a successful college career. Once you start having success, you start looking ahead (to the NFL). Just try to get on the field and make an impact."
Leonhard signed with Buffalo out of Wisconsin in 2005 as an undrafted free agent. He played in 38 games, including seven starts, in three years. Leonhard, who, because of his boyish looks, is often referred to as the water boy or paperboy, signed with Baltimore after Buffalo released him before last season.
Leonhard started 13 games for Baltimore, which reached the AFC Championship last year, after starter Dawan Landry suffered a neck injury. He followed Rex Ryan to the Jets, turning down Denver's better offer, agreeing to a three-year, $6 million contract.
So Leonhard, who barely got a shot to play college football, gets another chance at playing in the Super Bowl.
He just hopes to keep making plays.
"That's how you gain accountability from the coaching staff," Leonhard said. "You go out there every day and do what you're supposed to do. Do it over and over, and the coaches notice. That's all they are looking for. Make the right plays."