By HAL PILGER
STAFF WRITER
Published Monday, July 30, 2007


ST. LOUIS — Rookie running back Brian Leonard realizes he could be just a sprained ankle or wrenched knee or concussion away from replacing one of the top running backs in the NFL.

If Steven Jackson suffers any of those injuries or any of the many other maladies that may befall NFL running backs, Leonard — the Rams’ second-round draft choice out of Rutgers last April — could be called upon to take over.
Which means taking over for a man who totaled a league-leading 2,334 yards from scrimmage last season, including 1,528 on the ground, en route to his first Pro Bowl berth.

Even if Jackson remains perfectly healthy all season, Leonard figures to be called upon in a variety of roles, including spelling the superstar running back from time to time. Which is exactly why the Rams quickly sought Leonard, a versatile offensive weapon with Rutgers, where he earned first-team All-America honors for the third year in a row as a senior.

Leonard also collected second-team All-Big East Conference honors last fall despite being used more as a blocker than in past years. He still finished the season with 93 carries for 427 yards and five touchdowns, plus 38 receptions for 294 yards as the Scarlet Knights tied a school record with 11 wins.

Such versatility was paramount in the Rams’ decision to pick Leonard, because Jackson — just like his predecessor, Marshall Faulk, is such a multi-faceted factor in the offense. Jackson had 806 receiving yards last season and his 90 catches were second on the team, only three behind leader Torry Holt and 16 more than Isaac Bruce.

Early in training camp, the Rams are just trying to familiarize Leonard with the complexities of their attack.

“We’re getting him more comfortable with the offense right now,” said coach Scott Linehan.

And Leonard, admitting he made rookie mistakes early in his offseason training and mini-camps, is starting to feel a little more comfortable.

“Now I’ve settled down, kind of learned the playbook, and I’m ready to go, I feel,” he said.

Leonard believes his reputation as a collegiate workhorse will serve him well in Linehan’s eyes, and he doesn’t plan to let up now. He would probably drive an equipment truck if the coach requested.

“I think he’s using that right now,” Leonard said of his versatility. “I’m playing some fullback and some running back; I’m doing work on all the special teams. I’m doing a lot.

“So hopefully it will stay this way, I’ll stay healthy and hopefully help this team win.”

Leonard says the classroom work can be more challenging at times than the on-field workouts.

“I think the meetings are tough,” he said. “The only thing I can compare it to is college. I feel like in college, practices were a little tougher — obviously, ‘cause I was taking more reps. But the meetings are stressful.

“But I’m doing it, and doing good.”

And getting help from Jackson along the way.

“First of all, I think Steven Jackson’s a great guy,” Leonard said. “He’s helping me out a lot. I just want to get in there and help him out. He had over 1,500 yards rushing, over 800 yards receiving — that’s a lot of hits.

“Hopefully I can get in there, have a couple of his reps, take some hits off his body, and I think we’ll be all right.”

Linehan concedes Leonard, unlike Jackson, doesn’t appear overly imposing off the field.

“He’s another guy who looks better with his pads on,” the coach commented.

Indeed, the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Leonard doesn’t look nearly that large in street clothes. But what matters is how he looks in the Rams’ offense against opposing defenses. And if he comes up large in the Rams backfield.

“He’s really doing a nice job,” Linehan said. “And the thing that I’m real happy about is how he’s doing mentally, too.”’

Meaning on as well as off the field. Leonard says he’s been studying Jackson and trying to learn from his plays during practice.

“He’s a hard runner,” Leonard marveled. “I just watch the way he runs. And the way he hits the hole. I’ve been watching the way he hits the hole — he hits it hard. Hopefully I can change my game a little bit that way. I’ve watched him do that, and I think I can do that, too.”

Which would help keep opposing defenses in a hole.

“I think,” said Leonard, “this offense is going to explode.”