INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard today spoke to the media via video conference. What did he have to say about how he still finds motivation heading into Year 3 of his career, how specifically he believes new teammate DeForest Buckner will positively impact his game and more?
You can catch that entire session above, but here are a few main takeaways:
» No slight, big or small, is overlooked by Leonard to use as motivation on and off the field: Leonard's story by now is pretty well-known; he was not offered a scholarship by his dream school, Clemson, coming out of high school, leading him to tiny South Carolina State, where he became one of the best defensive players in the nation. He was considered the perfect candidate to come in and play WILL linebacker in the Colts' new 4-3 system when he was selected by the team in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but at around 230 pounds and coming from a small school, some outsiders considered the pick of Leonard a potential bust.
That kind of doubt, first from the Clemson coaching staff and then from those evaluating his draft choice, was all Leonard would need to dominate from the start. He led the league in tackles in 2018 and was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year as well as a First-Team All-Pro selection; he would follow that up with another solid year in 2019, earning his first-career Pro Bowl selection and being named Second-Team All-Pro.
One might think Leonard doesn't have much to prove now heading into Year 3. And they'd be wrong. He's still just as hungry as the high school senior who didn't get that offer he was hoping for from Clemson a few years back.
"As long as you have someone continue to say negative things, continue to badly rank you day in and day out no matter what — I need that," Leonard said. "That's going to give me that drive no matter what. When I come to work, it's like, 'OK, I have to put that maniac mentality on; zero plays off. I have to play every play like it's my last play.'"
So what's fueling Leonard's fire these days? Just log on to Twitter and you'll see. Just Monday he posted a picture of some custom cleats made for him by his agent that will serve as his motivation as he begins training camp, including his 85 overall rating in Madden NFL 21, the fact he wasn't named a Pro Bowler his rookie year and the one that nags at him the most: the fact some publication labeled him as the fourth-best off-ball linebacker in the NFL.
"Being a competitor, you play this game to be the best and if you're not the top one at your position than that means you're not doing the right thing," Leonard said. "I think that I have to continue to go out each and every week to prove that I can be the best linebacker, but until then that fourth linebacker projection, that's something I just can't live with."
Leonard says he has a list of about 15 goals he wants to accomplish each season; included on that list is, first and foremost, winning a Super Bowl championship, but also some more individual accolades, such as being named Super Bowl and league MVP. And even if he is able to accomplish those feats, he'll still be hungry for more.
» Leonard can't wait to see how DeForest Buckner will make his job even easier: The Colts identified having a dominant presence in their defensive interior as a major need heading into this past offseason, and accordingly went out and sent their first-round (13th-overall) pick to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for DeForest Buckner, one of the top defensive tackles in the league.
Buckner will play the same three-tech role up front for the Colts that he's served so well in his first four NFL seasons, being named Second-Team All-Pro last season and a Pro Bowler the year prior.
And, sure, Buckner is expected to fill out the stat sheet with plenty of impact plays just as he always has, but the rest of the defense is expecting Buckner to make a huge mark on their games, too; if he's causing plenty of issues up front, then the second and third levels will have more opportunities to make plays.
"Having a dominant three-tech as a WILL and (one) that can take up two to three blockers … the pullers can't go up on you or they can't double and then come up on the linebackers as quick as they want to," Leonard said, talking about how Buckner will impact his game, particularly. "That gives the linebackers enough time to actually run around and make plays.
"Then if you think about it – it's no secret, everybody knows that we are going to play Cover-2. It's a bend-but-don't-break defense. If the guys are shutting everything down in the back end and quarterbacks throw the check down because that's their last resort, by the time they even get to that check-down read and having our defensive line, I feel like our defensive line is going to be so dominant that quarterbacks will not have enough time to actually get to that check down," Leonard continued. "Having (Buckner), Denico Autry, J (Justin) Houston — I just feel like we're going to dominate, hopefully."
» Leonard had met Philip Rivers as a kid almost 15 years ago, and now the two are teammates: Leonard's brother, Anthony Waters, was a third-round pick by the San Diego Chargers in the 2007 NFL Draft, and little brother remembers meeting big brother's quarterback, Rivers, at some point during his two years with the Chargers in 2007 and 2008.
About 13 years later, it's that man, Rivers, who has joined the Colts via free agency, ready to take the offense to new heights.
"It's crazy because … I was there in San Diego growing up watching him play, meeting him and now he's on my team," Leonard said.
Leonard was asked which new teammate he's been able to establish a quick chemistry with already, and while he had plenty of options on the defensive side of the ball, he didn't hesitate when naming the 38-year-old Rivers.
"We talk about that all the time, his energy that he brings; like last night we were on a Zoom meeting and he's bringing so much juice saying how he's so ready to get back," Leonard said. "Thinking about me, I bring juice and then seeing him this morning he's like, 'I can't wait to get out on the field.' I think it's Philip Rivers because of his juice and the connection that he brings."
Sure sounds like things haven't changed after all these years.
"Yes, the country guy, very loud, competitive, trash talker — yeah, nothing has changed except his age," Leonard said.