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Rutgers' Leonard brings special talent to Rams
By PAUL DOMOWITCH
MEQUON, Wis. - See Brian Leonard run. See him catch. See him block. See him play on not one, not two, not three, but all four of the St. Louis Rams' special-teams units.
See Rams coach Scott Linehan display a big, bright Pepsodent smile when he talks about all of the ways he can use the versatile second-year running back/fullback/special-teamer out of Rutgers.
"Brian's one of those kind of guys who's so valuable to your team because he can impact it in so many places," said Linehan of the Rams' 2007 second-round pick. "He can play running back or fullback. He can start a game for you. He can come in on third down and catch a pass for you.
"It's not easy managing your roster in this league. If you've got a true [blocking] fullback or an undersized tailback, there's not a lot else you can do with them. But Brian can do everything. Is he going to be great at any of them? I don't know. But I know he's going to be very, very solid for us at everything."
The 6-1, 233-pound Leonard was considered a "tweener" by many NFL scouts prior to the '07 draft. Not fast enough to be an every-down NFL running back, not big or strong enough to make a long-term living as a lead-blocking fullback. Which is why there were more than a few raised eyebrows when Linehan and the Rams took the kid with the 52nd overall pick. But Leonard ended up being one of the few bright spots on a 3-13 team.
As a rookie, Leonard backed up Steven Jackson at running back, occasionally teamed with him in the backfield at fullback and was used as a third-down back in passing situations. He played in all 16 games, rushing for 303 yards on 86 carries and picking up 183 more yards on 30 receptions.
The bulk of Leonard's offensive production came in four starts at running back when Jackson was injured. In a 34-31 Week 5 loss to Arizona, he notched his first 100-yard game as a pro (102 yards, 18 carries) and had five receptions for 33 yards.
"I think his value to this team is just going to keep increasing as he gets more experience and we know exactly what we want to do with him," Linehan said. "We use him basically on an as-needed basis."
Many high-round picks might not be very enthusiastic about such an undefined role. But Leonard has embraced it. He's a smart guy who knows that the more ways the Rams can use him, the longer he will be able to stick around and collect NFL paychecks.
"When they drafted me, they kind of told me they were going to be using me for everything, including special teams," Leonard said. "One of the reasons they took me was because they liked my versatility. I think I'm most effective when I'm in a different role at different times."
NFL teams got a firsthand look at Leonard's versatility, as well as his team-first unselfishness, during his final two seasons at Rutgers. After collecting 1,308 rushing and receiving yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior, Leonard was looking to put up even more impressive numbers his senior year.
But Rutgers coach Greg Schiano had other ideas. He wanted to increase the role of his explosive junior running back, Ray Rice, and asked Leonard to move to fullback.
"I had thought about coming out [for the draft] after my junior year," Leonard said. "Then I came back expecting to get a lot of carries and the ball in my hands, and that obviously wasn't the case. Coach sat me down and talked to me about it. He told me that was going to be my role and I accepted it.
"It was the best thing for the team. I still got the ball in my hands a lot. I carried it seven, eight times a game and caught it five, six times a game. It wasn't as much as 30, 40 times a game like it was in the past. But I was OK with it. Looking back, I think it helped me out in the long run."
Said Linehan: "For us to be able to see that he could do that [play fullback] really increased his value with us when we were evaluating him. He was going to be billed as a Heisman Trophy candidate going into his senior year, and they basically told him they needed him to take one for the team. That really impressed me. He's a very unselfish guy."
What also increased Leonard's value was the 4.49 40-yard dash he ran at the NFL Scouting Combine prior to the '07 draft. But blocking for Rice left Leonard with a pair of bum shoulders that hampered him throughout his rookie season. He didn't have them surgically repaired until January.
"I didn't have any [upper body] strength last year," he said. "Blocking was tough. AC joint sprains here and there. Then you build up calcium in the joints and they start scraping together. But they took all that out and now, I'm as good as new."
Leonard didn't tell the Rams about his shoulder problems until after the season. He wasn't trying to hide the injury from them. He just figured since it wasn't bad enough to shut him down, it wasn't worth mentioning.
"He's kind of a throwback that way," Linehan said. "He came in and took every [practice] rep. Never told us about the pain he was in or the problems he was having."
Leonard has been on the field a lot during training camp. While Jackson had been holding out, he had gotten a lot of reps at running back, lined up at fullback in two-back sets, was the lone back in one-back sets and was on all of the Rams' special-teams units. Jackson agreed to a contact extension last week.
"[The holdout had] given the rest of us a chance to get a lot of reps, which can't do anything but help in the long run," Leonard said.
After the Rams finished a disappointing 28th in scoring and 24th in total offense last year, Linehan fired offensive coordinator Greg Olson and brought in Al Saunders, who might be the only coach in the league with a bigger offensive playbook than Andy Reid.
"It's tough to learn," Leonard said. "Probably one of the toughest offenses to learn in the league. But I love it. Once you get the grasp of it, it's great. It's all about getting the ball in the playmakers' hands. And we've got a lot of playmakers on this team."
The Rams pretty much quit on Linehan last season. Lost their final three games by a total of 65 points. But Leonard is optimistic about a turnaround.
"Last year felt like my freshman year at Rutgers," Leonard said. "Having gone through that before, I know it can change.
"I know some of these guys have never had a losing season in their life. So last year was very tough on them. But I know firsthand that you can build a program, you can change a program, within a year. Especially in the NFL. It can be a big flip in a year." *
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