The subject of growth streamed through FIU’s appearance at Conference USA Media Day like sunlight through the Boca Resort meeting room windows.
FIU showed up this year with players, not just hopeful of playing all-conference ball, as was the case its first two seasons in C-USA. The representing Panthers, fifth-year senior Richard Leonard and junior Jonnu Smith, already come with credentials – First Team All-Conference USA in 2014 and Leonard the preseason pick as Defensive Player of the Year.
Also, FIU coach Ron Turner’s not in the position of speaking optimism while standing on wreckage. Four wins in 2014 beat one in 2013 and four 2014 losses by 11 total points say there’s more to be mined this year.
“I really like this football team a lot,” Turner said. “The way they’ve adjusted to what we want them to do. A lot of these guys were here in the program who I didn’t recruit. They’ve totally bought into what we’re doing, doing things the right way. It’s been a process.
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“From Year 1 to Year 2, we got a lot better,” he continued. “But we still weren’t 100 percent of a team. We still had a group of guys who were more about themselves. I really believe right now, we’ve got a great locker room. That our guys are 100 percent about the team.”
Then, there’s personal growth.
Leonard’s last two years describe a true odyssey: academically ineligible for 2013; not even allowed to practice with the team for a few weeks during the 2013 season; academically reinstatement in 2014; a spectacular 2014 season with four touchdown returns, nine turnovers gained; eschewing the NFL Draft for one more year at FIU; graduating with his degree in sports management this spring; and, this summer, becoming a father to Chase Elijah Leonard.
This fall, Leonard’s finishing up a second major in criminal justice with a long view look at a possible law enforcement job.
“Never take anything for granted. If you take anything for granted, it will get taken away from you,” Leonard said the last two years taught him. “I learned from the school aspect, just stay focused and do what I have to do. As far as my child, he’s showing me more about life than I’ve never seen. Every morning, when I wake up, I see his smile. I know I have to go out there and do whatever I have to do to feed him and keep him happy.”
If “accountability” isn’t Turner’s favorite word, it loses in the championship round. He places it as the No. 1 characteristic he wants from FIU players. It’s what he now sees regularly from Leonard.
“His football talent was always there,” Turner said. “It speaks for itself. Off the field, he’s taking care of business. I’m very proud of him – he’s graduated. He’s gone from academically ineligible to graduating.”
Nobody would’ve been shocked if Leonard entered the NFL Draft. He’ll be 24 in September with a family. He would’ve been going into the draft off a season packed with impact plays that’s difficult for a defensive back to duplicate, especially when quarterbacks avoid his side of the field like the bad side of town.
“I really wanted to graduate school and just get another shot at a Conference USA title,” Leonard said. “It was a hard decision. I waited two months. I talked to my parents, talked to [FIU alumus, Colts wide receiver] T.Y. (Hilton), talked to [FIU alumnus, Jacksonville safety] Johnathan Cyprien. I was just asking them how they felt about my decision. They told me ‘If you feel good about it, run with it.’ ”
Smith’s growing physically – 241 now vs. 232 last year at, officially, 6-2 (try 6-3 or 6-4) – after already growing into a clear leadership role by performance: 100 catches for 1,098 yards and 10 touchdowns as sometimes FIU’s lone pass catching threat.
“I’m not really the outspoken one to speak up and say something because I feel like I don’t have to – we have so many great leaders on the team,” Smith said. “I feel like I lead by example for the most part, but if something needs to be said, I’ll say it.”
Turner said, “Everybody on the team knows he’s our hardest worker. It’s not a coincidence he makes all those plays.
“I’ve got a picture of him from an hour after practice. I could’ve taken it any one of our Tuesdays or Wednesdays during the season, where ne’s the only one on the field with a manager and a Juggs machine. He’s out there working on catching balls.”