INDIANAPOLIS – The omnipresent smile seemed a bit more spirited.
Shaquille Leonard is back in his element: the practice field. He’s bouncing around, cutting, driving into blocking dummies, snaring passes.
He’s not all the way back. Not yet.
It’s premature to project the Indianapolis Colts’ All-Pro linebacker in the starting lineup for the Sept. 11 opener at Houston. Or in week 2 at Jacksonville. Or perhaps the Sept. 25 home opener against Kansas City.
But it’s a start. And Leonard knows it.
“Yesterday I was just getting my feet back up under me,’’ he said Thursday after going through just his second practice in roughly eight months. “Today I was more comfortable and confident with my steps.’’
The atmosphere at practice reflected that.
“Today was a little louder, I guess,’’ Leonard said.
Frank Reich agreed.
“You can feel his energy,’’ he said. “We all know he’s a unique guy. He’s a unique player. He’s a unique leader. He’s our emotional leader.
“We’ve got a lot of great leaders. Shaq is a little more of an emotional leader for us, a player-making leader for us. You feel that.’’
Leonard has been in rehab mode since undergoing back surgery in mid-June.
“Three and a half months,’’ he said, clicking through the calendar in his mind. “It was just frustrating. I was just eager to get out there and play. Just seeing the guys go out there and perform every day, I just wanted to be a part of it.’’
What will tell Leonard he’s game ready?
“When I feel like I’m ready,’’ he said. “When I’m comfortable.’’
And that comes with each passing day of practice. That’s why it was critical he be taken off the physically unable to perform list (PUP) Tuesday and added to active roster.
He’s back on the practice field.
“Football is my fun place,’’ Leonard said. “Football is my safe haven. Football is also what I love to do. I love to compete.
“Just being down for three and a half months sucked, but it made me look at football from a different point of view.’’
Leonard is confident the issues he’s had with his left ankle – it’s always been the left ankle – are behind him.
When was the last time Leonard was able to play pain-free?
“Probably ’19,’’ general manager Chris Ballard said Wednesday. “I think (the left ankle) bothered him some in ’19, too.’’
Leonard corrected his GM.
“It’s been awhile,’’ he said. “They say ’19? I’m going to say ’18. If you think about 2018 and week 4 against the Houston Texans I rolled an ankle, sit out week 5 against the Patriots, then I came back against the Jets and you noticed that I’ve taped it up ever since.
“So it’s been a minute since I felt the way I’m feeling now. It’s a good feeling, but it’s still a process. I’m not saying I’m all 100% ready to go right now. I’m still trying to figure all that good stuff out. But I am feeling better, so that is the main thing.’’
The left ankle bothered Leonard throughout last season, but he found a way to play through it, and at a high level. He earned a third straight first-team All-Pro nod on the strength of four interceptions and a league-high eight forced fumbles.
Imagine what a healthy Leonard might do.
“If Shaquille can be healthy for a full season and be able to plant and cut his way as I was once before, I just think I’ll be flying around a whole lot better and making a few more plays,’’ he said. “I’ll be more crisp out of my breaks and will be in (passing) windows more.’’
While getting himself game-ready, Leonard also must transition to Gus Bradley’s defense. He’s moving from WILL to MIKE.
“I think it’s a good move for him because really in the system and the way the coverage is played out and the assignments work out, I think is very similar to what he had last year,’’ Reich said. “It’s a different position, but really it’s very similar in responsibilities to what he had last year.’’
Leonard noted he occasionally played the MIKE position for previous coordinator Matt Eberflus.
“It ain’t no difference,’’ he said. “More making the calls, making the checks, just being the middle of the field most of the time. I don’t think it’s too much different besides taking more command. Now I’ve got to talk more on the defensive side of the ball.
“That’s it. Football is football.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.