Florida International U

FIU’s Richard Leonard’s return game gets strong again in time for FAU

FIU cornerback Richard Leonard breaks a tackle against UNC Central on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 at FIU Stadium in Miami.
FIU cornerback Richard Leonard breaks a tackle against UNC Central on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 at FIU Stadium in Miami. For the Miami Herald

Richard Leonard’s back for FIU. Or, perhaps more appropriately, Leonard has returned.

Say that loudly enough, and you might hear a collective groan from the direction of Florida Atlantic, FIU’s opponent in Saturday’s Shula Bowl. You couldn’t blame Florida Atlantic for occasionally hoping for a lightning delay. At least during lightning delays, game-changing lightning strikes can’t happen.

Such as a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown (Leonard vs. FAU in 2012). Or a 100-yard fumble return touchdown (Leonard vs. FAU in 2014 after a two-hour lightning delay).

Guess who was the first Panthers player FAU coach Charlie Partridge singled out when talking about FIU Monday.

“I remember him from high school, Miami Killian [High] kid who is dynamic,” Partridge said. “He had another big return, didn’t get all the way to the end zone, against Old Dominion last week, but is a force.”

That’s been true over the last three games, when Leonard has averaged 49.2 yards per kickoff return and 24.2 yards per punt return. No touchdowns, but long comebacks that start drives a first down or two from scoring range. Or make teams do things like squib kickoffs, risk onside kicks, punt out of bounds.

Before that, Leonard’s numbers looked less like those of an All-Conference USA returner and more borrowed from a possession receiver given the return job because he can catch punts: 21.5 yards per kickoff return and 5.9 yards per punt return over the first five games.

What changed wasn’t Leonard, although he did admit to pressing early in the season.

“I was trying to make something happen because everybody was leaning on me to make a big play, so I think was trying to do too much instead of letting the game come to me,” Leonard said. “Now I’m just seeing everybody do their job and getting blocks, and I’m going off of them.”

The big runbacks returned when a little blocking returned.

“We’ve got some new guys on there, and it took them a little while to understand the angles and the speed of the game,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “If you give him a shot at it, he’ll make something happen.”

For Turner, having Leonard is a throwback — a return, if you will — to the luxurious days of being Chicago’s offensive coordinator when the Bears had the NFL’s all-time leader in touchdown returns, University of Miami product Devin Hester.

On Saturday, FIU went for a fourth-and-1 from the Old Dominion 8-yard line instead of kicking the 25-yard field goal to turn 7-0 into 10-0. The first part of the gamble failed when a pass fell incomplete. FIU cashed chips on Part II when the defense got a three-and-out was followed by a 44-yard Leonard punt return. A 27-yard touchdown drive later, FIU was up 14-0.

That was the first of three times that FIU went for it on fourth down inside the Monarchs’ 10.

“It totally affects the play-calling,” Turner said. “Somebody asked after the game why we went for it. I’m thinking, ‘Hey, [if] we stop them, they punt. Even if we fair-catch it, we get good field position. [If we] get it in [Leonard’s] hands, we get great field position or a touchdown.”

Turner said that with Hester, he thought, “ ‘If they kick it to No. 23, we’re going to have great field position.’ Same thing with No. 3 here.”

TIGHT END SMITH HONORED

Junior tight end Jonnu Smith’s 10 catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns impressed the Mackey Award folks enough to name Smith the John Mackey National Tight End of the Week.

Smith’s was on both the preseason watch list and the midseason watch list for the Mackey Award, given to college-affiliated football’s best tight end.

▪ To fill the injury-caused shortage at safety, FIU reached over into the offensive backfield for running back Silas Spearman III. Spearman’s taken snaps at safety against UTEP and Old Dominion.

Spearman, who rushed for a then-freshmen record 136 yards and two touchdowns at Southern Mississippi in FIU’s only 2013 win, redshirted last season while recovering from a knee injury. He played safety along with running back at Loxahatchee Seminole Ridge High.

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