Panthers’ Richard Leonard looks to be more consistent

All-purpose athlete Richard Leonard expects to be the ‘shutdown corner’ for the Panthers, as well as a dangerous punt and kickoff returner this season.

08/07/2013 12:01 AM

09/23/2013 7:13 PM

For the first two days of FIU fall practice, which were heavy on passing, there could have been a fun pool guessing how many passes junior cornerback Richard Leonard intercepted or knocked down versus how many passes receivers caught on Leonard.

Leonard’s ahead.

He has had two interceptions and at least four pass breakups. Receivers haven’t caught six passes on him.

“Richard is a hard corner to throw against,” FIU quarterback Jake Medlock said. “He’s so football smart and talented. He’s quick twitch. He can make a break, look like he’s completely off-balance and then make an unbelievable move to get right in front of the ball.”

Leonard starred on defense in spring practice also, seeming to show 2012 can be counted as a sophomore slump, at least on defense.

FIU’s secondary got strafed by several quarterbacks, allowing a 60.6 completion percentage, 24 touchdown passes and 262.1 passing yards per game.

Clearly, that’s not all on Leonard, one part of a four- or five-man secondary. But scouts from the pass-happy NFL weren’t laying much of the blame on FIU’s safeties, particularly senior safety Johnathan Cyprien.

When they went to the game tape, Cyprien’s draft stock rose all the way to the second round.

After three interceptions and six pass breakups his freshman year, Leonard’s numbers were zero and seven, respectively, as a sophomore.

So Leonard took responsibility. He watched game film with a more discerning eye. He also assumed a bigger leadership and teaching role on a team on which he was now one of the elders.

“I’m just having fun,” Leonard said. “I’m having fun out here.”

On special teams last season, Leonard’s 29.15 yards per kickoff return average was second-highest in FIU’s history.

He also averaged 14.2 yards per punt return. His 49-yard punt return for a touchdown helped FIU escape Akron’s upset try, and his 100-yard kickoff return touchdown proved the turning point in a win against FAU.

Even his special-teams record got smudged last year, however. Punt return fumbles led to Duke and Akron touchdowns in FIU’s first two games.

Still, he’s on the College Football Performance Awards watch list as both a punt and kickoff returner.

Leonard’s 843 all-purpose yards last year almost doubles the 428 yards of the next-highest returning Panther, sophomore wide receiver DeAndre Jasper.

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