Darius Leonard always has a chip on his shoulder. But he never holds a grudge.
That’s a narrow path to walk. It’s an attitude that has worked for Leonard throughout his college career and sudden NFL rise.
It’s also a useful mindset when, say, a reporter from an outlet that ranked him as one of the worst picks in April’s draft calls for an interview just days after he wins NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors.
Leonard didn’t happen to see that not-so-complimentary bit of Bleacher Report post-draft analysis, did he?
“I have a picture of it on my phone,” Leonard said in a recent interview. “I look at it almost every week.”
“That’s one of the things I live for. I live for proving you guys wrong. So I appreciate that.”
Leonard has been proving the doubters wrong since he became “The Maniac”—and leaped onto the NFL’s radar—with an eye-popping performance against the Clemson team that snubbed him as a recruit. He’s been battling the odds since a March combine injury turned his NFL journey into a painful ordeal.
Criticism motivates Leonard, but it doesn’t anger him.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “I’ve been underestimated since high school.”
With an NFL-high 79 total tackles through seven weeks to go with four sacks and two forced fumbles for the Indianapolis Colts—and some serious Defensive Rookie of the Year buzz—Leonard won’t be underestimated, overlooked or disrespected anymore.
The Making of The Maniac
Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Before he became The Maniac, Leonard had a much less intimidating nickname.
“I was Mr. High Flyer,” Leonard said.
Mister High Flyer?
“In basketball, I could dunk on anyone. I could outjump anyone.”
Leonard was a lanky 180-pound power forward with hops on the court. On the football field, he was a running back and defensive back for tiny Lake View High School in South Carolina.
Off the field, he was one of the biggest Clemson Tigers fans on the planet.
Leonard’s elder stepbrother, Anthony Waters, played linebacker for Clemson. Leonard began attending games and visiting the athletic dorms when he was 10 years old, learning to love Death Valley while palling around with Clemson stars like Waters’ roommate, the late Gaines Adams.
“I was there almost every weekend, traveling to almost every game,” Leonard said. “It grew on me. It’s where I wanted to be for a long time.”
Once he reached Lake View, a Division 1A school in a state where the big prep programs are classified as 5A, Leonard dedicated himself to getting a Clemson football scholarship. “They were the only college that I really wanted to attend. That was my dream school.”
Despite Leonard’s and Lake View’s size, Clemson was also interested in the young stepbrother of a defender who was eventually drafted in the third round by the San Diego Chargers. But Leonard needed a final round of SAT scores to qualify academically. By the time the passing test score arrived two weeks after national signing day, Clemson’s scholarship offer was gone. The school offered Leonard priority walk-on status instead.
He turned that down and took the only scholarship offer on the table: from South Carolina State, a much smaller FCS school.
RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press
SCS head coach Buddy Pough knew Leonard’s background and was willing to wait on a recruit he felt mighty Clemson was too quick to cast off.
“Sure, he qualified late, but the real problem was he was 6’2″, 180 pounds,” Pough told Ray Glier of The Undefeated. “Some guys are 180 and they don’t get as big as Darius Leonard. But he came from an athletic family. … His brother was the same frame in high school, 180, and he went to Clemson and got bigger. It wasn’t like they didn’t know him. They just didn’t want to wait on him.”
Leonard took the scholarship despite never having visited the South Carolina State campus. He had never even spoken to Pough or any other coach. “When I went to a spring football game, that was my first time stepping on the campus,” Leonard said. “The second time was freshman orientation.”
After dreaming of the palatial, NFL-like Clemson facilities, Leonard thought the much smaller program looked a little bush league at first. “I was kind of shocked going in and looking at everything,” he said.
The hastily arranged sight-unseen union between the recruit with Clemson dreams and the small program could have been disastrous. But Leonard quickly turned the disappointment into motivation.
“I was just grateful for the opportunity to play at that level,” he said. “I went in with a chip on my shoulder to prove that I could play.”
Leonard was so good so fast that Pough wanted to elevate him from redshirt status to the active roster after watching him shine with the scout team as a freshman. But the South Carolina State coaches waited instead for the wiry Leonard to fill out his frame. Sure enough, Leonard beefed up, just as his brother did, growing from 205 pounds when he entered college to 235 pounds as a senior.
Leonard grew into a standout and a leader on the Bulldogs defense. But he made his biggest mark when he faced the college that jilted him in September 2016.
Clemson trounced South Carolina State 59-0 that day, as a national powerhouse will do when fattening its record against the local FCS squad. But Leonard recorded 19 tackles and blocked a field goal at Memorial Stadium, where he once hoped he would play every week.
Richard Shiro/Associated Press
The Clemson game put Leonard on the NFL’s radar. Colts general manager Chris Ballard cited that matchup when explaining his decision to draft Leonard.
That contest also spawned a better nickname for Leonard than Mister High Flyer.
“After the game, someone walked up to me on campus and said I was playing like a straight maniac. That stuck, and I went with it.”
Leonard’s interpretation of “maniacal” behavior is noticeably upbeat: On the field and sideline, he’s more about controlled chaos than linebacker rage. “I love to have fun, and I just want people to smile around me,” Leonard told Andrew Walker of the team’s website.
Colts area scout Jamie Moore got a firsthand look at The Maniac in action when he noticed a defender “hootin’ and hollerin'” in the end zone during a pre-dawn practice.
“Just to see his mannerisms, his demeanor, how he communicated with his teammates, it kind of just confirmed what you saw at practice; that consistent, like, juice, energy level, which obviously we’re looking for,” Moore told Walker.
Leonard left South Carolina State as a two-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defender of the Year. He attended the Senior Bowl and recorded 14 total tackles in the game. Leonard was poised to generate a lot of predraft buzz as one of those small-school wonders we love to add to “sleeper” and “best-kept secret” lists.
But his journey to the NFL, like his journey to college, soon hit a major snag.
A Little Bit of Gore
Michael Conroy/Associated Press
One reason Leonard received a few dubious draft reviews was his disappointing 4.7-second 40-yard dash at the combine.
“Whoever believes that is pretty far off,” Leonard said. “I got hurt running that 4.7.”
True, he had injured his quad before the combine and pulled a hamstring while running the 40. But poor results in the events he managed to complete before the hamstring injury stuck with him—at least in the realm of predraft chatter, where small-school wonders need eye-popping workout numbers to stand out.
The injury lingered while Leonard began the long grind of team visits and workouts. He worked out for two or three teams per week during the draft run-up, hopping on a plane with a still-ailing hamstring after one team visit to travel immediately to the next.
“I’d say I was 70-80 percent,” Leonard said of his health during workouts. “I was in a lot of pain. I could never recover. Every time I felt like I was good, I went back out there and I would just push it. But I had to fight through it and do all the right things to get my name out there.”
The risky decision to work through the pain paid off. Ballard pointed to Leonard’s willingness to battle through injuries during his pro day as a major predraft selling point.
“He’s got a little Frank [Gore] in him in terms of his passion and caring about it,” Ballard told reporters after the draft, referring to the 35-year-old NFL iron man. “He was about 85 percent during this [on campus] workout. But coaches hadn’t had a chance to work him out, so he said, ‘I’ll go. I’m working out.'”
Ballard selected Leonard with the 36th pick in the draft. Leonard arrived in rookie camp a few days later eager to show what he could do and…promptly re-injured the same quad.
The Colts shut him down until training camp. Leonard was forced to watch and learn instead of proving what he could do.
“It was hard, especially learning the defense and building that trust. This team is about trust. And it’s hard to earn someone’s trust when you’re just standing on the sideline.”
Once the quad healed, Leonard attended a Florida-based summer football camp, where he not only improved his conditioning but also picked up some linebacker pointers from Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks. “I wanted to work on my keys a little bit. Work on my punches; getting off blocks quicker.”
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
The extra work—and extra rest—paid off on the first day of training camp. Leonard was assigned to cover tight end Erik Swoope on a seam route: a tough task for any linebacker. Andrew Luck threw a 50-50 ball—one of Luck’s first passes since his shoulder surgery nearly two years ago—and Leonard outleaped Swoope for an interception.
Coaches were impressed. “Those are the players we’re looking for in the scheme,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said after that practice. “We want linebackers that can move and react like a defensive back. … So he’s one of the young players there that we certainly are excited to have.”
Leonard was less impressed by the practice-field pick. “I just read my keys and trusted my athletic ability,” he said.
Leonard kept making plays—and displaying the versatility Eberflus craves—throughout training camp. He quickly earned a starting job. By the end of the preseason, Leonard wore the helmet headset and was responsible for relaying plays to his teammates.
Once the season started, Leonard made an immediate splash: a whopping 19 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in coverage against Washington, two more sacks against the Eagles, another sack against the Texans, another forced fumble against the Jets, and 17 more total tackles and a fumble recovery against the Bills.
“D is playing at an extremely high level for a very young player, and that’s what we expect,” veteran Colts safety Mike Mitchell said after Sunday’s contest. “That’s why he was drafted high, and that’s why he’s doing his thing.”
With every big game, memories of all of those predraft reasons to doubt Leonard grow a little dimmer.
“I went to a small school, and then there was that 40 time,” Leonard said. “But everything else was proven on film.”
A Burning Fire
Leonard was cast aside by Clemson, made his reputation with a maniacal effort against Clemson and has earned NFL accolades without the help of a Clemson pedigree. So you would think Leonard wants nothing to do with Clemson anymore.
But he remains just as big a Tigers fan as he was when he was a wide-eyed Pop Warner kid tailing his big brother at Death Valley.
“I still watch Clemson every Saturday,” Leonard said. “I still go to Clemson games when I can. It’s still in me.” Even at South Carolina State, Leonard often played for the Bulldogs by day but rooted for the Tigers on television by night.
It’s another example of that balance between having a chip on your shoulder and holding a grudge, between wanting to prove someone wrong and still loving them. It’s a mindset that has paid off for a defender from a small high school and FCS college who always seems to get judged by measurements, test scores and workout results that don’t really reflect what he’s capable of.
That mindset also makes the interview a little smoother when that media outlet that wrote you off as a bad draft pick comes a-calling a few months later and asks to hear your story.
“I always look for things to fuel me,” Leonard said of a post-draft grade which, as we say on the internet, didn’t age well. “It just gave me a burning fire in my heart again to prove everybody wrong. I appreciate y’all.”
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@MikeTanier.