Darius Leonard feels like he’s starting all over.
As a relatively unheralded high school player, he was exasperated by the lack of attention he got from nearby South Carolina and Clemson. That snub drove him as he built a standout career at South Carolina State, an FCS school, and it seems like déjà vu as he tries to convince NFL teams he’s worth picking in this year’s draft.
“I used that as a little chip on my shoulder to show teams what they could’ve had,” he said. “I’m still that guy because I came from a small program, so I’ve got a point to prove.”
Leonard, a linebacker who wrecked everything he saw when he played for the Bulldogs, is emerging as a second-day prospect after a dominant senior season. He picked up momentum with a good showing at last month’s Senior Bowl, and said the Dolphins were among the teams he met with that week.
Linebacker remains a concern for Miami, as it has been for several years. The team goes into the upcoming season counting on Kiko Alonso after a down year and Raekwon McMillan after a torn ACL. Beyond those two, there are no certainties.
Veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons is a candidate to be cut, possibly this month, and the collection of Mike Hull, Stephone Anthony and Chase Allen have a lot to prove. The Dolphins see potential in the latter three, but none have established themselves as good enough to be full-time starters yet.
That’s where a 6-foot-2, 229-pound tackling machine like Leonard can help. In his final season for the Bulldogs, he piled up 114 tackles, 8.5 sacks and two interceptions. He followed up with a game-high 14 tackles in the Senior Bowl, the first step in showing he can handle higher competition.
He faced big schools occasionally at South Carolina State and got some validation with 19 tackles in a loss to Clemson his junior year. He also had 16 in a game against Central Florida that season.
“They say the MEAC isn’t all that great, but I think the level of competition was pretty good and I can play with all these big-time names,” he said.
Leonard can be a factor at inside or outside linebacker, which appeals to the Dolphins, and falls in the range where they could reasonably consider a linebacker.
The position isn’t enough of a priority for them to go high, but they could be looking for one in the third round. The Dolphins are currently slotted to pick 73rd overall and once they address some more pressing needs early, linebacker could be on the table at that point.
Leonard aspires to be a versatile linebacker like Jacksonville’s Myles Jack and has the tools to get there. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein sees him as an every-down player.
“Leonard has packed on the pounds since hitting campus, but it hasn’t compromised his play speed as he has posted dominant production throughout,” he wrote. “He lacks play strength, and there are times you want to see more nasty in his field demeanor, but he has the traits and talent.”
Now he’s on the big stage as he heads toward the draft and he gets another opportunity to impress teams at the NFL Combine in a few weeks. The spotlight and the way teams grill potential prospects haven’t bothered Leonard at all, and he’s embracing the chance to hold up under their scrutiny.
“It feels pretty good,” he said. “We didn’t have any of that at South Carolina State, so I’m kinda feeling the big-time love. It actually feels pretty good having all the interviews.”
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