ORANGEBURG – Coming out of Lake View High School, linebacker Darius Leonard was used to being on the football field for just about every snap.
So when Leonard arrived at South Carolina State in the fall of 2013, the last thing he expected was to sit on the sidelines for an entire season.
But sitting out as a freshman and redshirting might have been the best thing that ever happened to Leonard.
Like a lot of athletes that S.C. State head coach Buddy Pough recruits, Leonard came to Orangeburg as an undersized player at his position. The lanky, 6-3 Leonard had the height and quickness to play linebacker in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, but weighed just 185 pounds and needed a year in the weight room and at the training table.
Leonard’s talent became apparent after just a handful of practices. There was talk early in Leonard’s freshman season about burning his redshirt year and getting him on the field.
“It didn’t take long for us to realize that Darius was going to be a great player for us,” Pough said. “I’d look down at him on the sidelines his freshman season and think he could help us right now, but I knew we needed to be patient. He needed to get bigger and stronger and then he’d become a real force for us.”
Leonard said sitting out that first season was the longest year of his life.
“I’ve been playing football my whole life and to not play that season was very tough because I love the game so much,” Leonard said. “I understood that redshirting my freshman season was the right thing to do. I needed to put on some weight and I needed to get stronger.”
Leonard has put on nearly 50 pounds, topping the scales at 235 pounds, and has turned himself into a legitimate NFL prospect in the process. A year ago, Leonard led the Bulldogs with 124 tackles and had 14½ tackles for loss and 3½ sacks on his way to being named the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year.
“He’s probably the smartest football player we’ve had come through here in a long, long time,” Pough said. “He’s athletic as all get-out and he will rock your world. He’s got the total package.”
Pough has used Leonard on special teams and he's even made a few appearances on the offensive side of the ball at wide receiver, where he caught a touchdown pass last season. Pough thinks Leonard has a similar skill set to former Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, who was taken in the first round of last April’s NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns.
The NFL has taken notice of Leonard. NFL scouts from just about every team have visited during the Bulldogs' preseason camp.
“We’ve probably had more interest in Darius from the NFL than any player we’ve had here lately,” Pough said. “He’s definitely on their radar. He’s definitely a kid that can play at the next level and have a long career. He’s that good.”
The biggest issue for Leonard during his career has been keeping weight on him. Leonard said he eats at least five times a day.
“I try to eat as much as I can, it seems like I’m eating all the time,” Leonard said. “During camp it’s tough because it’s so hot, I can lose six or seven pounds during practice. I drink a lot of protein shakes and try to eat as healthy as possible. I want to eat the right kind of food and be smart about my diet.”
After finishing 5-6 a year ago, Pough believes the Bulldogs are ready to challenge for the MEAC title this fall.
For one, the Bulldogs don’t have a game against an FBS opponent this year. Last season, S.C. State started the season with three straight road games, including matchups against Clemson and Central Florida. The Bulldogs open the season against Southern University in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Baton Rouge, La.
“We still think it’s a challenging schedule, the game against Southern will be a big game for us, but we don’t have one of those money games this year,” Pough said.
The biggest question mark for the Bulldogs will be at quarterback. Gone from the program are Caleb York and Adrian Kollock, who took the majority of snaps in 2016.
Dewan Ford and Mykal Moody will both share time at quarterback.
“We’ve got a pretty good defense, so if we can get some production from our offense, especially our quarterbacks, we’re going to be pretty good,” Pough said. “We feel good about our running backs and our receivers, we just need our quarterbacks to manage the game and our offensive line, which is a little thin, to stay healthy.”