FIU redshirt junior cornerback and kick returner Richard Leonard has Alabama-Birmingham coach Bill Clark worried. A year ago, the only coach Leonard worried was his own.
Leonard’s speed — if he’s not the fastest FIU player, he would still be on the relay team — allows him to act as both anchor for FIU’s outside pass coverage and rocket fuel for the return game. He’s sixth nationally in kickoff return average (33.2 yards per return), ninth in punt return average (21.4 per return) and fourth in total kick return yardage (370).
“They are third in the country in kickoff returns. When you have a guy that will take it 7 or 8 yards deep in the end zone, that is normally not a good move,” Clark said. “But he gets it out to the 40- or 50-yard line. We are definitely aware of who he is and they do a great job with him.”
With Leonard and his cousin, junior Jeremiah McKinnon, on the corners, FIU’s options multiplied, both in run defense and the pass rush. Being able to pack the box kept Bethune-Cookman and Louisville from having the kind of steady yardage each wants out of the running game.
The Bethune-Cookman game was Leonard’s first game since the end of the 2012 season. He missed the 2013 season while academically ineligible.
“When I first got out here, I was just screaming and yelling, just happy to be out here,” Leonard said of the season opener. “I touched the ball, I’m out here, let me do what I do. I was just happy, though.”
He said the 2013 season taught him, “Not to be selfish. Not to take things for granted. I’d taken football for granted. And I paid for it.”
That frustrated FIU coach Ron Turner. You didn’t need to be a coach with NFL experience (and FIU had several) to identify the Panthers’ best defensive player in spring football or training camp. But, also, it just didn’t make sense to Turner.
“He was academically ineligible not because he can’t do it. He was just because he didn’t do it,” Turner said. “He’s a very bright individual. I told him that. I said, ‘Richard, some people are going to struggle in school because they can’t help it. You’ve got no reason to struggle. You’re a very bright young man.’ He’s got great character. He just wasn’t showing it.
“I think he just needed some direction. Not that he wasn’t getting it before, I’m not saying that,” Turner continued. “Maybe he matured. Whatever the reason. It started to click late in the year last year. This spring, he was outstanding. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do on and off the field.”
Leonard watched last year’s 1-11 season with the pain of not just what was happening to him, but to his team.
“I felt I could’ve helped the team a lot,” he said.
An abysmal offense, ranked as the nation’s worst, needed the assistance of field position and defensive scores. Rare was there good field position from kick or punt returns — only three kickoff returns all season exceeded Leonard’s 2012 average of 29.2. No field position from turnovers, either — FIU only came up with 14. And no defensive scores.
Now, add Leonard.
His school-record 148 punt return yards in the opener included a 71-yard return that left only 9 yards for FIU’s lone touchdown drive. He returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown against Wagner. He showed the strength that made him pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team in 2013 by just ripping the ball from Pitt running back hulk James Conner to create another turnover.
FIU got to the Louisville 11 as the first half wound down Saturday. But, in reality, the closest the Panthers came to reaching the Louisville end zone were Leonard’s 45- and 35-yard kickoff returns.
And he has assumed the role of a team leader.
“I didn’t notice the guys were looking up to me,” Leonard said. “Once I realized they were, I started talking and trying to encourage each player to try to be great.”