GM Chris Ballard, Colts saw Darius Leonard’s potential from the outset

Darius Leonard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Darius Leonard is taking the NFL by storm, but it’s a storm the Indianapolis Colts saw coming.

The latest gale hit Wednesday when Leonard became just the fourth Colts’ rookie to be named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. That was on the strength of his fat stat line generated in Sunday’s 21-9 win over the Washington Redskins: 18 tackles, including 15 solos, 1 sack, 1 defended pass and 1 forced fumble.

After two games, Leonard leads the NFL in total tackles (27) and solos (21).

Again, the Colts saw this coming from a player taken with the 36th overall pick in the April draft.

During a casual meeting with the media in late April, general manager Chris Ballard hit the “play” button on his remote and explained what led him and his personnel staff to invest so heavily Leonard. The 6’2″, 234-pound linebacker was ultra-productive in college – a school-record 394 tackles, including 274 solos, and 21.5 sacks – but that college was South Carolina State.

“So this is one of my favorite guys . . . and he’s a neat kid, man,” Ballard said. “And he is driven. He’s got a chip (on his shoulder). So he pulls a hamstring (at the NFL Combine) and he’s got a little Frank (Gore) in him in terms of his passion and caring about it. So he was about 85 percent during this (on campus) workout. But coaches hadn’t had a chance to work him out, so he said, ‘I’ll go. I’m working out.'”

The video continues. Leonard continues to go through drills for scouts.

“You’ll see at the end he’ll get tired, but hey, there is absolutely no quit in him,” Ballard said.

The primary pre-draft question hovering over Leonard was the level of competition he had faced. South Carolina State is an FCS program.

“You hope with small-school guys they progress,” Ballard said. “And I’ll show you the game that convinced me, and it was Clemson versus Deshaun Watson.”

Leonard appeared on everyone’s radar after piling up 19 tackles. His blip grew a year later when he collected 14 tackles at the Senior Bowl.

“This kid’s a long, rangy guy,” Ballard said, hitting the rewind button a couple of times to showcase Leonard’s athleticism. “I think he’s made for what (we want to do). Y’all had a guy (like him), David Thornton.

“This kid is a really talented athlete, and we’ll live through some (growing pains) with him. But he’s got the one trait that you can’t coach: he can really run . . . I mean, this kid can roll.”

Jamie Moore is one of Ballard’s college scouts, and handles the Southeast region of the country. He witnessed Leonard’s growth and potential on several occasions.

“The first thing that stands out is unique physical talent qualities,” Moore said after the draft. “I fell in love with the athlete, then I saw it on tape. Watched a lot of him last May, fell in love with the athlete, and you plan out your fall schedule and he’s a guy I put on the radar that I wanted to look at.”

Is there more of a risk when evaluating a player from a smaller school? That player doesn’t face top-drawer competition on a weekly basis.

“He’s definitely gotta pop on tape. You gotta see something unique about him,” Moore said. “Gotta have something special (in terms of a) level of competitiveness.

“Those guys are easy. Everyone’s like, ‘Well, those guys gotta be difficult because you’re projecting (from) a small school, and this and that.’ They’re easy. They jump. They pop on tape. The tape is the resume.”

It was obvious to Moore that Leonard would be a perfect fit for the 4-3 defense the Colts were installing.

“Oh, you kidding me? Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve been here 12-plus years and (going back to a 4-3) is like going back to the future.”

Leonard fit the weakside linebacker role “to a T,” Moore said. “He’s real fun. The athlete is unique. Saw him play live. Kid’s got juice as a person.”

Moore shared an experience he had while scouting Leonard on campus. He arrived for a practice that began at 5:30 in the morning, and heard a player “hooting and hollering and bringing all this energy.”

“I ask, ‘Where is Darius Leonard?'” Moore said.

Leonard was the guy in the end zone hooting and hollering and bringing the energy.

“I was like, ‘Alright, alright. I can get with this,” Moore said. “He has that juice, energy level, which Chris has preached since he got here.”

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51