On Oct. 2, 2014, FIU defensive back Richard Leonard picked up a fumble in his own end zone. Without hesitation, Leonard sprinted out of the end zone, broke three tackles before he reached the 20-yard line, and ran the last 80 yards untouched.
Leonard’s 100-yard fumble return extended the Panthers’ lead over rival Florida Atlantic to 24-10 and is one of two 100-yard return touchdowns in school history. The other 100-yard score also belongs to Leonard.
“As a returner, I model myself after myself,” Leonard said. “I do things different than other people.”
The 24-year-old Leonard has taken a different path to the NFL Draft too, rebounding from academic troubles that caused him to miss the 2013 season and establishing himself as a late-round draft prospect.
“I don’t think there’s any question in my mind that he can play in that league,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “As long as he stays focused on the right things and continues to work … which I think he will.”
Leonard has been named to the Conference USA first team both as a cornerback and a kickoff returner each of the past two seasons. He graduates with the most career pass breakups in team history and the second-most career kickoff-return yards, behind only current Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Leonard ran an average 40-yard dash time of 4.39 seconds at his Pro Day, which would have been the fifth-fastest time among defensive backs at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine.
“Size is his biggest concern,” Turner said. “That’s going to be the biggest thing … to show people that he plays bigger than he is and that he’s a good football player.”
Considering the season-long ineligibility Leonard already has overcome, a couple of inches shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.
“I felt like I let my team down,” Leonard said of his lost 2013 season. “I also let my family and myself down. I just needed to work on getting in my schoolwork and staying in shape for the 2014 year.”
Turner said he met with Leonard throughout 2013.
“We talked about everything,” Turner said. “He didn’t want to end up being another one of those guys that have great talent, great opportunity, but flunks out of school and doesn’t do anything with it.”
Leonard graduated from FIU at the end of the 2014-15 school year, but chose to return to campus as a graduate student and play the 2015 football season with the Panthers. A year later, Leonard stands by his decision.
“I know a lot of people were telling me I should [leave school],” Leonard said. “[I had] a lot of things I needed to work on. I kept staying in shape … just working on my craft.”
In addition to improving as a football player and continuing his studies, Leonard spent the extra year with his newborn son, Chase.
“I need to provide for him, so he doesn’t live like I used to live.” Leonard said of Chase, who just turned 11 months old. “I just have to do anything I can do to let him see the bigger things in life.”
Leonard said he models his defensive game after Tyrann Mathieu, the Arizona Cardinals defensive back who also returned kicks in college.
If he can’t make it as a kick returner or a defensive back, Turner said Leonard also could play wide receiver.
“We actually put him on offense a little bit in the 2014 season,” Turner said. “It was amazing how quickly he learned it mentally.”
Leonard plans to watch the draft with his immediate family at his Richmond Heights home. He hopes to sign with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent if his name isn’t called.
“I know I can impact a team on special teams or defense,” Leonard said. “It’s just me getting that opportunity.”