WESTFIELD – A veteran and a rookie shared the same feelings as Saturday evening’s training camp practice neared, although one was at a higher level.
JuJu Brents, the Indianapolis Colts’ much-hyped second-round draft pick, dealt with a bit of anxiety awaiting his first NFL practice. He had missed all of the team’s offseason work while recovering from wrist surgery and was held out of the first six camp sessions because of a hamstring injury.
“It was a good day to get acclimated, get my feet underneath me, just be out there able to compete with my guys,’’ Brents said.
The Warren Central High School grad admitted friends and family were wondering when this day would actually occur.
“Probably my mom the most,’’ Brents said with a smile. “My biggest fan. She wants to make sure I’m all good. But it’s been all love from everybody.’’
He told everyone, “Once I do get out there full-go, it’s going to be full head of steam.’’
The nerves that flooded the rookie were nothing compared to what Shaquille Leonard was dealing with.
A three-time first-team All-Pro who has appeared in 61 regular-season games and compiled a busy stat line – 549 total tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, 12 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles – admitted a level of fear followed him into practice.
Leonard, who underwent a second surgery on his back in November, has practiced since camp opened July 26, often in team sessions. But Saturday was the first time he did so in a full-padded setting. Contact is somewhat controlled, but there’s contact nonetheless.
“It felt amazing, especially being away from contact for a long time,’’ Leonard said. “Eager to get back in … and just taking the fear out of making contact. It felt amazing to get back out there and make some contact.’’
Leonard was quizzed on his choice of words. Was it fear? Or anxiety?
“I would still say fear,’’ he insisted. “Just being able to contact for the first time in a long time, not knowing what was going to come.
“It feels good. It feels amazing.’’
Leonard underwent his first back surgery on June 9, 2022, and returned too quickly. He was back on the practice field in two-and-a-half months and was cleared to play for the week 4 game against Tennessee.
Leonard’s fifth season consisted of three games and 74 defensive snaps, and he admitted during that process a review of video of his practices revealed how ill-prepared he was to return.
Comeback 2.0 is markedly different. Thus far, it’s much better.
“Starting to see somebody that resembles the guy that I used to know,’’ Leonard said. “Now, I’m building more confidence. I’m shooting through gaps, getting in windows.
“That’s what I want to see on film. That’s what I’m happy to see right now.’’
One of Leonard’s strongest motivators has been linebackers coach Richard Smith. He’s brutally honest with the team’s defensive cornerstone.
“Just his honesty,’’ Leonard said. “Telling me if I look bad, telling me if I need to be out there or not. For a player, sometimes you’ve got to be protected from yourself and coach Smith keeps it 100 all the time.
“He’ll let me know, ‘Hey, looks like you’re shying away from your left side.’ That’s one thing I needed, somebody to tell me the truth about what they’re seeing on film.’’
Shaq on Richardson
Leonard was asked if there’s an NFL comparison for Anthony Richardson. The No. 4 overall pick in the draft is the Colts’ quarterback of the future, perhaps even the present.
Richardson is listed at 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds — although he admitted he’s “bouncing around from 248 and 252.”
“Size-wise, I’ll say (Buffalo’s) Josh Allen,’’ Leonard said. “But he has speed. He runs a 4.4, 4.5 like (Baltimore’s) Lamar Jackson. The size of Josh and the speed of Lamar.
“It’s kind of hard to see him in full speed right now because the whistle will blow quick. I just can’t wait to see him.’’
Minshew’s turn with starters
After Richardson was given all of the first-team reps in each of the last two practices, Gardner Minshew II took every one Saturday evening. Richardson’s work was with the No. 2 unit.
Shane Steichen opened practice with the first and second offenses working simultaneously on adjacent fields. Richardson kickstarted what might have been his best camp work thus far by going 5-for-5, which included a touchdown to Amari Rodgers.
“He was solid,’’ Steichen said.
Both Richardson and Minshew were 9-for-11 in team sessions.
Among players held out of practice: Defensive end DeForest Buckner (foot), tight ends Mo Alie-Cox (ankle), Will Mallory (hamstring) and Jelani Woods (hamstring), cornerback Kenny Moore II (ankle) and guard Emil Ekiyor (knee).