Cornerback is all about confidence.
The confidence the FIU coaching staff invested in cornerbacks Sam Miller and Richard Leonard last season has paid dividends for both players who strive to be receiver erasers this season.
The confidence has also come from what they learned.
“Last year, I felt like a rookie on the field,” said Miller, a junior out of Miami LaSalle High. “But, now it comes to me easily. We have an understanding of the plays the coach called. We have faith in each other to do our assignments now.”
Coaches showed immediate faith in Leonard, starting him as a freshman from Game 1, using him along with Wayne Times as the backup punt and kick returner when T.Y. Hilton injured his hamstring in the third game. Both on and off the field, Leonard, a freshman from Miami Killian, got treated like a player at the end of his college career rather than the beginning.
Still, he recalls needing midseason encouragement from safety Jonathan Cyprien when he struggled in the fourth and fifth games with position discipline. Leonard ended the season with three interceptions in the last four games. Miller picked off passes in the two games before that.
“Now, I’m a lot more confident,” Leonard said. “I want them to let me go one-on-one with every good receiver. That’s what I’ve been doing lately.”
Watching Leonard battle receivers over six feet in practice on deep passes is sometimes like watching a cat climb a tree to swat at a bird except Leonard’s swats often dislodge the ball unlike Sylvester’s attempts at Tweety.
“They had great moments early, a couple of rough patches in the middle and closed strong [last season],” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “At 5-9, they have to be as strong as they can possibly be. They have to increase their length in terms of getting vertical on contested balls. They have to have that body control and explosiveness to make a play on the football. They’ve done that. Those are two of the most improved physiques on the team.”
Miller said his squats have increased from repetitions with 225 pounds to 385 pounds.
Leonard said he’s 10 pounds heavier, but as for measuring strength, “I’m going to test it in our scrimmage this week. I’m going to see what I can do with [running back Kedrick Rhodes] one on one. Can I make an open field tackle on him? That’ll be the test.”
Both, however, always had the attitude to overcome altitude.
“First, I’ll look at film to see if he’s fast or slow,” Leonard said. “If he’s fast, I press all quick people.”
Miller said he played linebacker in Pop Warner and retained the mind-set as he played safety in high school, then cornerback and safety at FIU.
“Before I go up against a guy, you can tell he’s tall,” Miller said. “But when I’m lined up in front of them, I see them as my height. I just play as a big guy. I play like a big guy. With our offseason training I can get in their chest and muscle them so, it’s nothing. I just feel like they’re slower, and I can run with anybody.”