Leonard to use Pro Bowl snub as motivation against Giants
Now the league’s leading tackler intends to make all future opponents pay for the perceived snub.
“He told me he’d have 40 tackles this week, and I told him that’s humanly impossible,” tight end Eric Ebron said Wednesday.
But if the Colts (8-6) have learned anything about their star rookie, it’s not to discount anything he says.
When South Carolina State played Clemson in 2016, Leonard had 19 tackles against the eventual national champs and his childhood favorite, which never offered him a scholarship. His performance that day earned him the nickname “Maniac” around campus, a nickname he still clings to, and put him on the radar of Colts general manager Chris Ballard.
Throughout the draft process, he heard from the critics again. This time they were questioning the level of competition he faced in college; how long it would take to make the transition from FCS to the NFL; and whether Ballard reached when he took Leonard at No. 36 overall, four picks into the second round, in April.
Others questioned whether missing all of the Colts’ spring and summer workouts because of a bad hamstring would slow him down this season.
Leonard has proved all of them wrong.
Despite missing one game, at New England, he continues to lead the league with 146 tackles and needs 15 over the final two games to break Jeff Herrod’s single-season franchise record (160), a mark that has stood since 1991. And if Leonard’s play matches the hype, Herrod’s record could go down Sunday against the New York Giants (5-9).
“It adds more fuel to the fire,” Leonard said when asked about missing the Pro Bowl. “It gives me more reason to go out and keep fighting. With everything I did and knowing it’s still not enough, I’ve got to put more on my resume.”
Leonard views it as more of a promise than a warning and it fits his personality.
While he revels in the underdog role, he routinely plays with a chip on his shoulder and continually sets his standards high. His goal each week is to get 25 tackles and he’s finished in double digits in seven of the Colts’ 14 games. He’s tied with Carolina’s Luke Kuechly for the most games with 10 or more tackles this season.
But what the Colts have found in Leonard is much more than a tackling machine.
His seven sacks are third most by a Colts rookie, trailing only Dwight Freeney (13) and Vernon Maxwell (7). Dee Ford, Khalil Mack and J.J. Watt — all Pro Bowlers — are the only players this season to force more fumbles than Leonard (4). He also has 12 tackles for loss, six passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.
Andrew Luck spotted the potential almost from the first moment Leonard suited up for Indy. At the first training camp practice, Leonard made a leaping, acrobatic interception of the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback.
“I’ll be honest, the first couple of training camp practices I said ‘My goodness, he’s not supposed to be that fast and play linebacker,'” Luck recalled. “And then he went up for that interception and came down with it, and I just said ‘My goodness.'”
Luck appreciates that he won’t have to contend with Leonard in a meaningful game. The rest of the league won’t be as fortunate.
“I want to go out there every week and make every tackle,” Leonard said. “I like to set a crazy goal, so each week if it’s not 25 (tackles), I’m mad at myself.”