Malik Hooker Jersey

The 2018 Indianapolis Colts are a very young team that is hoping to build for the future. One thing that they desperately need from these young players is one to emerge as a star. The most likely candidate to breakout has been second year safety Malik Hooker. Hooker has been very quiet to this point in the season though, as he has accumulated just 25 tackles and one pass deflection in five games played.

This begs the question: Is the lack of statistical output a result of Hooker’s failure to develop after his strong rookie season or is Matt Eberflus’ new defensive scheme effecting Hooker’s numbers? After breaking down the film, I can confidently say that the lack of production from Hooker is primarily due to scheme.

The Colts primarily deploy a cover two base defense, a very new system for Hooker who has primarily played a center field role in man coverage base defenses. This is an entirely new defense to learn and there will be some hiccups. Despite the expected learning curve, I have seen signs of positive progress for Hooker from year one to year two in the NFL.

Let’s look at some film for examples.

A very underrated aspect of safety play is understanding run fits. When I say understanding run fits, I don’t mean being an excellent run defender or tackler. I mean being in the right position when the runner is coming downhill.

Ideally, every defender on the field understands their assignment in run defense and fills the necessary hole so that a tackle can be made before a big play happens. Once a player loses their run fit— or assignment— that is when the big plays occur.

Hooker really struggled with this his rookie year. Not really known as a run defender in college, Hooker came into the NFL with more of the mindset to avoid contact and try to make a play. This often resulted in a big play for the offense.

In this clip, we see improvement in that area. Notice that Hooker comes downhill and fills the run lane. As a rookie, he shied away from contact and let others make the play but here he gets involved. Physicality and form tackling are another matter, but this is a mark of improvement for a young safety.

In the following clip, Hooker comes downhill to fill a potential running lane. Again, as a rookie Hooker often sat back and relied on others to make this play. This year, in a new scheme, it is a positive sign to see him both willing and able to get downhill.

The biggest flaw I found in Hooker’s rookie film was terrible pursuit angles. Hooker too often relied on his natural athleticism and found himself giving up extra yards in pursuit. He seems to have matured in this area, and has been limiting big plays by taking much better support angles.

In our first clip, Bengals’ running back Joe Mixon has a ton of running room. Hooker— who starts the play on the midfield logo— comes all the way across the field and limits the damage to twenty yards. A twenty yard gain is not ideal but having a player with Hooker’s speed on the backend turns a back breaking touchdown into just big gain.

As a rookie, Hooker had this closing speed and burst but lacked the proper angles to make the play. Here, he shows signs of improvement.

Here’s another example. If Hooker takes a poor angle, it is a touchdown for Eagles’ running back Josh Adams. He is literally the last line of defense. He starts on an aggressive path that would have likely led to a missed tackle. Hooker adjusts to take the correct angle and makes a touchdown saving tackle. This is another sign of his growth and potential to become a well rounded safety.

Hooker is a gifted athlete. His natural speed and burst out of his backpedal will always be highly coveted. While much of this review focuses on areas he has shown improvement, I want to also take a look at the natural abilities that got him drafted in the first round.

This clip may look like a simple play but few have the physical ability to make it. Hooker (who is at the top of the screen) drops into his backpedal at the start of the play. Once he notices Deshaun Watson release the ball, Hooker bursts out of his backpedal and, like a blur, is tackling receiver Keke Coutee for a minimal gain. His closing speed to close the gap between him and his desired destination is absolutely incredible.

How does one talk about Malik Hooker and not mention his range? One of the most coveted traits in safeties and Hooker not only has it, he is borderline elite in this department. A combination of his athleticism and his understanding of routes, Hooker is able to make plays many safeties in the NFL can only dream of making. The range that he showed in college on a weekly basis is the main reason that he was selected so high in the 2017 draft.

This clip may see like a weird one to show for Hooker’s range. This is certainly a miscommunication by the defense as two players are streaking open down the field with only Hooker in deep coverage. What I want to focus on is how Hooker moves and how much ground he is able to cover on this play.

He initially opens his hips to assist in over the top coverage up the hash. He notices the wide open running back streaking behind him and flips his hips around in an instant to be in position to make a play on the pass catching running back. I understand that the running back falling prevented a potential touchdown here but Hooker’s ability to stay deep and flip his hips left him in a good position to make a play, even if the running back kept his balance.

This last clip is where his range and ball skills meet for a highlight reel type pass breakup. Hooker, starting on the bottom of the screen, notices the post route immediately off the line and opens his hips to the middle of the field. He breaks with Nelson Agholor across the field and at the last second is able to break on the ball and bat it away. The range he shows to track Agholor all the way across the field and then make a play on the ball is the reason why so many hyped up Hooker before the season.

These traits rare athletic traits, along with his development in run defense, have really made me hopeful for the rest of this year.

I’ve shown a few clips that display my concerns with Hooker and his tackling. He is just not a form tackler right now and really needs to improve. He is still an arm tackler who throws his shoulder at runners and hopes for the best. In the open field, Hooker struggles to break down and make the sure tackle. When he does contact runners, he is not nearly physical enough to get them down without a form tackle.

This clip shows an atrocious miss in the open field. Hooker gets to the receiver in a hurry but fails to properly break down and make the tackle, resulting in more yards. This cannot happen from your safeties. I understand that Hooker has mainly been a deep safety his entire life and hasn’t been asked to make many tackles like this in space but this is part of his growth as a safety. So far, I have not seen enough consistency in the open field to fully trust him as a tackler yet.

The last opportunity is more due to the scheme change than Hooker’s play. In this predominantly cover two scheme, what he is asked to do has increased dramatically. He is now playing as an interchangeable zone safety where his responsibility is a deep half of the field rather than just sitting over the top in man coverage. With that comes a lot more cerebral processing that Hooker just doesn’t have yet.

Here’s an example. The call by the Redskins is a deep flag route. Hooker— top of the screen— gets way too much depth in his back pedal and gives up the fifteen yard completion. A way to measure this is to look at Clayton Geathers on the other side of the screen. Notice how Geathers sits on the route and is in position to break on the ball if the ball is thrown his way. This is just a natural feel thing for Hooker. Once he realizes that he has the speed to turn and run with receivers, he will start sitting on more routes in deep coverage.

In this next clip, Hooker does the complete opposite, as he does not get enough depth in his coverage. Hooker— top of the screen— comes up into the box presumably to drop into zone coverage in the flats. Hooker’s first mistake is over-committing to the run which prevents him from getting into his drop at the snap. He then does not get enough depth which allows the comeback route to open. This again just shows Hooker’s inexperience as he has rarely played in the box in his football career.

So we’ve gone through enough clips now to where I think that we all have a good idea for what kind of player Malik Hooker is. He has the ability to be an absolute playmaker and showed that with his 3 interceptions and 4 pass deflections in just seven starts last season. So why does he have no interceptions five games into this season?

Well, it’s simply not what he’s asked to do in this new scheme.

This cover two scheme is dependent on Hooker doing his job, which is locking down his deep half of the field and preventing big plays while keeping the ball in front of him. For the most part, he has succeeded in doing that. Therefore, he is accomplishing his job in the realm of this defense.

Lets look at a clip or two to show this. Against the Redskins here, Hooker— top of the screen— is in deep coverage. Alex Smith’s main target appears to be one of the two receivers streaking downfield. Hooker plays the deep man then breaks off and comes down on the inside guy who is also streaking deep. Hooker taking away both of these option results in Smith having to come to his third option— late I may add— which nearly results in an interception for Pierre Desir.

This next clip shows Hooker’s role in Kenny Moore’s interception against the Bengals. Hooker— top of the screen— is playing his deep half of the field and backpedals to around the 45 yard line. The Bengals are trying to hit the deep post on the second play of the game. If Hooker was out of position or did not get proper depth, Andy Dalton is likely able to make this throw before the pass rush gets to him. Instead, Dalton recognizes that Hooker is the deep safety where he wants to go and elects to go to his check-down as he gets hit, resulting in an interception. Hooker’s reputation and being in the right position are two of the factors that led to this interception.

Nyheim Hines Jersey

INDIANAPOLIS — No beach, no vacation, none of that – instead, the lunch shift at a fast-food joint, hours before kickoff on a bustling college campus. It was chaotic. Stressful. One customer walked in and ordered $100 worth of food. Another told Nyheim Hines his fries were cold, begging for fresh ones. Plenty more saw his face peak out from under his Bojangles’ visor in the drive-thru window, and wondered why in the world an NFL running back was handing them their fried chicken.

“What are you doing here?” they’d ask.

Fair question, considering Hines’ day job is paying him $480,000 in base salary this year.

Hines is the youngest member of the Indianapolis Colts’ 53-man roster. He’s the No. 2 rusher in a dynamic offense, a shifty scat back coach Frank Reich loves using in open space, a rookie this team expects to bloom in the seasons to come. He’s slated to make $2.4 million by the time his rookie deal is complete in 2021.

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts rookie running back Nyheim Hines could have spent his first bye week hanging out in the Bahamas, Mexico or on the West Coast in Southern California relaxing and spending some of his $480,000 base salary.

The thing about Hines, though, is that there was no temptation to do those things. His eyes were on his future even though he’s only 22 years old and hopes for a long NFL career.

That’s why he spent part of his bye week on the NC State campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, getting weird looks from people wondering what the NFL player was doing behind the counter wearing a Bojangles visor and T-shirt. He was taking and passing out orders of fried chicken, cajun fries, sweet tea and their signature Bo Berry biscuits.

Hines knows his football career won’t last forever. In fact, he knows it could end at any moment because of a freakish injury. That’s why he has started the process of learning what it takes to be a restaurant owner.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing since high school,” he said. “I talked to [my] father (Darrin) a lot, and he mentioned a restaurant. I always thought to myself that if I do make it to the NFL I’ll have a lot of money. Enough money to change my family’s life, and if I do it right, enough money for future generations of my family. I want to run several Bojangles when I’m done playing.”

Why a fast food restaurant instead of being a real estate (another passion of his) entrepreneur? Because fast food restaurants don’t close outside of renovations, Hines said.

“And in order to run a restaurant you have to be able to know how to do everything,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy thing to do. People are spending money on food they expect to look, taste and be delivered a certain way. The day I was in there it was on a Saturday a few hours before NC State’s football team had a game. Somebody came in and ordered $100 worth of food. You had to take care of his order and everybody else’s, too.”

Hines, who averages about 10 touches per game and has scored three TDs for the Colts this season, said he chose Bojangles because it’s always been his favorite place to eat. He posted an Instagram story back in July prior to heading to Indianapolis for training camp saying he was going to “miss you guys” and tagging Bojangles in it.

Bojangles, which is predominately in the southeastern part of the United States, got in touch with Hines and sent him the location of the nearest restaurant in each city the Colts play in this season. He had a friend bring him some Bojangles when the team was in Washington to play the Redskins in Week 2.

That’s why it was a “no-brainer” to try to work at Bojangles during the team’s bye in Week 9.

“My initial reaction was ‘Wow,’ when Nyheim told me that’s what he wanted to do when the players had days off,” David Thornton, the Colts director of player of engagement, said. “He was taking the initiative to make it happen. That’s admirable for a rookie to start that process on the front end and take it beyond just football. We really try to get guys to think about things beyond just football. Understanding that football is a gift. They’re special in that way, but everybody has gifts beyond that, too.”

Being a restaurant owner is a 100-yard journey for Hines. He started as an IT major at NC State but switched to a business major later. He said he still has 18 credit hours to complete before he receives his degree.

“I plan to continue working with restaurants in the offseason,” Hines said. “[Former Colts linebacker] Gary Brackett is somebody who went from playing in the NFL to becoming a successful entrepreneur. I want to learn from as many people as possible to see how they made the transition.”

Tyquan Lewis Jersey

The Indianapolis Colts used one of their second-round picks on defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis envisioning him as a versatile piece that could work all over the defensive front.

While they were right about his versatility, Lewi’s rookie season was put on hold for the first half of the season as the Ohio State product battled a toe injury, which forced him to start the season on the PUP list.

He did return for the second half, though, and wound up playing eight games recording 2.0 sacks and eight quarterback hits.

A pass rusher that could play the three-technique and on the edge, the Colts fell in love with Lewis’ versatility. They touted his talents all summer before he had to miss time due to the toe injury.
As soon as Lewis was ready to return to the field, he claimed a starting role at defensive end opposite Jabaal Sheard. Lewis would play more on the edge than the interior mostly due to the solid play of Margus Hunt and Denico Autry.

Lewis showed promise during his rookie season, but he also showed there were inconsistencies in his game as there were with all of the defensive linemen in 2018 for the Colts.

The Colts have a solid foundation defensively, and Lewis is among the building blocks of the unit in the front seven after a solid rookie season.

The Indianapolis Colts are without a member of the defensive line in the AFC Divisional Round. After listing defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis (knee) as doubtful on Thursday’s injury report for Saturday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Colts on Friday announced that Lewis was downgraded to out.

Lewis, who did not practice the entire week, suffered the injury in the final regular-season game against the Tennessee Titans. He did not play in the Colts’ opening game of the playoffs last week against the Houston Texans.

The Colts are also without running back Ryan Grant, who was previously ruled out Thursday with a toe injury.

Here are other injuries we’re following heading into the Divisional Round of the playoffs:

  1. As the Chargers head to New England, tight end Hunter Henry (knee) is questionable to play, while fullback Derek Watt (shoulder), corner back Brandon Facyson (concussion) and linebacker Kyle Wilson (concussion) are likewise questionable.
  2. To little surprise, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (back) was ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Saints. Offensive tackle Jason Peters and defensive end Michael Bennett (foot) are questionable, as are linebacker D.J. Alexander and receivers Shelton Gibson (hamstring) and Mike Wallace (ankle).
  3. Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley (ankle), who did not practice all week, is questionable to play against the Rams on Saturday. Also questionable are tight end Blake Jarwin (ankle), defensive tackle Maliek Collins (illness/ankle), guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (ankle) and safety Darian Thompson (groin). David Irving (ankle) has been ruled out.
  4. Rams running back Todd Gurley (knee), along with defensive back Blake Countess (concussion), were full participants Thursday after being limited the day before. Defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks (thigh) did not practice and is questionable for Saturday against the Dallas Cowboys.
  5. Chiefs safety Eric Berry (heel), receiver Sammy Watkins (foot) and running back Spencer Ware (hamstring) are questionable heading into Saturday’s game against the Colts.
  6. Saints offensive tackle Terron Armstead (pectoral) looks to be a go for Sunday’s playoff tilt against the Eagles as he practiced in full on Friday and had no game status, which indicates he is expected to play.
  7. Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise (ankle) was limited in practice on Friday and is doubtful against the Chargers. Wise was the only Patriot on Friday’s injury report.

Kemoko Turay Jersey

INDIANAPOLIS — Kemoko Turay’s rookie season has hit a snag.

For so long, the rookie out of Rutgers was like so many of the rest of the Colts’ rookie class, playing a key role on the defensive line and flashing the pass-rush ability that made him one of Chris Ballard’s four second-round picks in April.

But Turay’s playing time, and subsequently his impact, started to fall off some time around Thanksgiving. Active for nine of the first 10 games of his rookie season, Turay averaged 36.1 snaps.

Turay has averaged just 11.3 snaps in the four games since then, and his season hit a low point when he was active on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys but did not take a snap.

Injuries have played a factor. So has the return of fellow rookie Tyquan Lewis, who took over as the starter at right defensive end immediately after being activated off of injured reserve.

Put simply, though, the Indianapolis coaching staff needs to see more out of Turay on the practice field.

“If you hustle in practice and you rush the way you were supposed to rush, execute and have production in practice, we are obviously going to play those guys in the game,” Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “If you don’t have that, and you have situations where you are not executing the way we want to and at the standard we want to have, then you might not play as much.”

Turay’s talent is obvious. Freakishly long and athletic, blessed with speed and an excellent first step, Turay has four sacks and ranks second on the Colts with 12 quarterback hits, evidence of his raw ability to get to the quarterback.

But Turay has been battling a neck/shoulder injury and a hip injury since October, and he was forced to sit out the Colts’ first game against Jacksonville. Turay returned the next week and recorded a sack in 41 snaps against the Titans, but he wasn’t playing at full strength.

“It’s getting better,” Turay said. “I’m just trying to get right.”

The shoulder injury, in particular, has lingered. While Turay declined to offer details on the injury, the rookie did admit that the shoulder has good days and bad days. At times, he feels like it’s healed, and then the pain returns.

“I’m constantly staying on top of it, getting stronger, trying to maintain it, make sure you keep yourself from getting injured further,” Turay said. “As of right now, I’m feeling better, I’m feeling good.”

Lewis’ emergence also doesn’t necessarily mean Turay has to lose snaps. The other defensive lineman the Colts picked in the second round, Lewis has the versatility to play all over the line, and Indianapolis would like to get him more chances to rush from the interior. In the first game the two played together, Lewis started on the right side and took 50 snaps, but Turay still logged 41 plays against the Titans.

Turay’s snaps have largely gone to backup defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, a player the Colts claimed off of waivers from the Saints at the end of training camp. Muhammad has played 98 snaps in the last two games after rarely playing 20 on defense for most of the season.

To Turay’s credit, he’s heard the message the coaching staff has been telling him: Hard work can get you back in the lineup.

“You’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to keep your job,” Turay said. “The (coaching staff) didn’t see the guy I was the first week, so I’ve got to constantly keep getting in the training room and do whatever possible.”

Eberflus, for his part, opened the week by saying he was confident Turay would put in the work to earn back a spot on a surging Colts defense. The rookie has his eyes set on getting back to where he was in the first half of the season:

Chasing quarterbacks.

“I’ve been practicing, fighting through what I’m going through, but that ain’t going to stop me,” Turay said. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to make the coach want to play me. It’s up to them. I’m going to do what I can do to the best of my ability.”

Because when he’s playing to the best of his ability, Turay can be a force.

Braden Smith Jersey

For years, the Colts have been searching for answers at right tackle, a spot that has seen trade targets, free agents, draft picks and developmental players fail to match Anthony Castonzo’s rock-solid consistency on the left side.

For a decade, Auburn has fielded one of the SEC’s most powerful offensive lines and simultaneously struggled to produce successful linemen at an NFL level.

Braden Smith could be the man to buck both of those trends.

Indianapolis initially envisioned Smith as a guard, but that was before injuries kicked him out to right tackle during training camp, before injuries and tragedy forced Smith into the starting lineup at right tackle two weeks ago, before Smith held up well against both the Patriots and Jets.

“Right now, it’s looking like Braden’s spot, with the way he’s playing,” Colts coach Frank Reich said.

Indianapolis took something of a risk when it selected Smith in the second round of April’s draft.

Not because a team should never take two guards in the top 37 picks, although general manager Chris Ballard took considerable criticism from the outside for just that after Smith’s name was called on draft day. Not because of his physical tools; Smith was one of the strongest, most explosive blockers available.

Because of his school.

Auburn has a long, proud history of producing Pro Bowl offensive linemen, but the pipeline dried up a decade ago.

The Tigers hired their current head coach, Gus Malzahn, as the offensive coordinator under Gene Chizik in 2009. Under Malzahn’s offensive guidance, Auburn has produced a Heisman Trophy winner, a national title, a BCS runner-up and nine consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher. A program like that should be a factory for NFL offensive linemen, but only five Auburn offensive linemen have been picked in the draft since 2009, and the Tigers’ top picks at the position have struggled.

Left tackle Greg Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick in 2014, was a colossal bust for the Rams and is now on his third team. Robinson’s replacement, Shon Coleman, was a 2016 third-round pick by Cleveland, failed to win a starting role and was shipped off to San Francisco in August for a seventh-round pick.

The problem is Auburn’s offense.

Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle scheme is nothing like an NFL offense. Auburn rarely huddles. Offensive linemen operate mostly out of a two-point stance. Play calls are a picture on a board, rather than a long list of words, and Auburn rarely makes checks or audibles at the line of scrimmage, a staple of NFL offensive line play.

And the differences don’t stop after the ball is snapped. Auburn’s passing game is built around short, quick throws, limiting a lineman’s true pass-blocking snaps to a dozen or so per game. The tempo is so fast that defenses do not have time to change calls, disguise blitzes or rotate fresh personnel into the fight.

“It’s two different styles,” Smith said. “At Auburn, all we did was run the ball. It’s a pretty simple offense. It’s not too complex, which is the point of it, so we could go fast.”

Auburn is emblematic of a larger problem for NFL talent evaluators.

So many college programs run some version of the spread that there are fewer ready-made offensive linemen available in the draft than ever before. Programs that run pro-style offenses — schools such as Wisconsin, Iowa, Stanford — have become premier spots to find help on the line. The Colts went to one of those farms to get first-round pick Quenton Nelson; Notre Dame has produced five first- or second-round picks on the offensive line in the past five years.

Indianapolis believed Smith’s spread-offense background would not limit him as it has limited Robinson and Coleman. When the Colts finished evaluating Smith, the team felt confident that his skills were not “scheme-dependent,” according to director of college scouting Morocco Brown.

The physical gifts were clearly in place.

Darius Leonard Jersey

When Darius Leonard first arrived at South Carolina State, he was playing both sides of the ball as a wide receiver and linebacker. It was something he said he expected to do for all four years of his college career, but his coach, Oliver “Buddy” Pough, had other plans.

“He kind of threw me on defense and was, ‘Stay there,’ ” Leonard recalled.

The longtime football coach at South Carolina State chuckled at the thought – he can do that now – after reflecting on the player who set the career record for tackles (394) at the historically black college in Orangeburg and was selected 36th overall by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 NFL draft.

“He wanted to be a wide receiver here, and now looking back on it, I wish I had [played him at receiver] … I probably screwed that up,” said Pough, who is in his 17th season as head coach of the Bulldogs and has been a part of the program as a player, assistant coach or head coach for more than four decades.

“We had him redshirted as a freshman because he was, like, about 180, 185 pounds, somewhere in that neck of the woods — and we were laughing then that he was the best player on our team, and he wasn’t even playing. But [Darius] was one of those players who’s always been a little bit above what you think a player like that could be. But hindsight is always 20/20.”

It’s also clear Pough’s plan worked out just fine, too.

Leonard, in his first year in the NFL, leads the league with 54 tackles and has played a big role in improving a Colts defense that finished 30th out of 32 teams last season in total defense and allowed 367 yards per game.

“If you had told me that I’d be leading [the NFL] in tackles in my rookie year, I think I would have told you that I didn’t believe you,” said Leonard. “I’m just coming from a small school, and I thought I was [going to] take a little more time to actually get right.”

Leonard isn’t the only one surprised at his start; even those who’ve followed his trajectory – from high school to this point – admit to the same.

“I’m surprised that he’s been able to play at such a high level,” said Ernest Robinson, who called all of Leonard’s games as the play-by-play radio announcer for South Carolina State.

“We’ve seen him play that way before, we just didn’t think it would translate that quickly at that level. But what he does doesn’t surprise me from the standpoint of how hard he works. He puts in a lot of effort in everything that he does. He won’t be outworked, even at that level.”

“When I got drafted, there wasn’t a lot of praise of me going early, so I was just dying to still prove everybody wrong.”

Far from an imposing linebacker at 6 feet 2 inches and 234 pounds, Leonard is doing in the NFL what he did at South Carolina State, where he started all 43 games during his career, leading the team in tackles three times and earning Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year his junior and senior years.

Unlike his college career, however, there was no doubt in the Colts’ mind as to where Leonard would play. A starter from the beginning, Leonard let the nation know who he was – and where he’s from – when he had 18 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in the Colts’ 21-9 win against the Washington Redskins on Sept. 16.

“A star in the making,” is how veteran defensive lineman Al Woods described Leonard to’s Mike Wells. “Just a guy that comes to work every single day. He takes the good with the bad. Takes the coaching, he talks to the older cats, he always tells me to remind him about his alignment. He does a good job with everything. Everything you want out of a young player.”

South Carolina State wasn’t supposed to be the landing spot for Leonard – not in his mind, at least. The Lake View, South Carolina, native was dead set on attending Clemson, where his half-brother Anthony Waters played from 2002 to 2006 and later had a short NFL career with the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers.

Though he’d been on Clemson’s radar – Leonard attended football camps there as a high schooler – the scholarship offer never came. But Clemson’s loss would be Pough’s gain as Leonard would anchor his defense and, like most professional athletes, be driven by a desire to prove people wrong.

When the opportunity came to show the Tigers what they’d missed, Leonard responded with a 19-tackle performance when the Bulldogs met the Tigers during his junior season.

It’s the same fuel that drives him in the NFL now.

“When I got drafted, there wasn’t a lot of praise of me going early,” he said when discussing his breakout game against the Redskins, “so I was just dying to still prove everybody wrong.”

In a league that’s all about making adjustments, Leonard will have to contend with teams game-planning around him, something you can bet is already in the works with arguably the best at it: Bill Belichick, whose New England Patriots host Leonard’s Colts on Thursday night.

“Darius is going to have to do a lot of homework, because the NFL is all about homework,” explained Robinson. “And one of the things that Darius has in the NFL that he did not have at South Carolina State is access to video to seeing highlights and all the time studying on plays. Darius will do that – even though he didn’t have access to that in college, so from that standpoint, that’s new to him. So, as they prepare for him, he’ll be able to be that much more prepared.”

Before his first NFL game on Sept. 9, Leonard allowed himself a moment to reflect on his journey.

“That first game against Cincinnati I came out for warmups and I just felt a whole different vibe there and that’s when I kind of … took it all in,” explained Leonard, who had nine tackles (six solo) in that 23-34 loss to the Bengals.

“It was just a lot of emotions coming out. It was everything that I worked for, so just coming out of the tunnel … I was just kinda happy, emotional a lil’ bit, just ready to play.”

His college coach takes great pride in seeing Leonard blossom so soon.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, [but] I think he’s one of the top guys I’ve ever had a chance to coach, and I think he knows that,” explained the coach. “I just think we just kind of have to continue to see where we’re going to from here.”

For now, Leonard is representing his alma mater as well as can be. Few teammates even knew of his school with an undergraduate enrollment of 2,524, or that players from historically black colleges steadily ball out. Now, the entire league is on notice.

When asked about his goals for this season, it comes as no surprise that they’re lofty: “I want to win the Super Bowl, be the Defensive Player of the Year, and go to the Pro Bowl.”

He’s well on his way.

Quenton Nelson Jersey

INDIANAPOLIS – Dave DeGuglielmo is everything an offensive line coach should be. He looks like one. Thinks like one. Yells like one. He is beautifully blunt, a man with no time for pleasantries and no interest in clichés. Ask him a question, he tells you what he thinks.

No spin. No coachspeak. Just truth.

He also might be doing a better job than any position coach in football this year. No unit in 2018 has remade itself, and revived itself, more substantially than the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line. For years, they were the butt of jokes, the Achilles heel of this franchise. No more. Now they’re one of the best lines in football, and they have the numbers to back it up.

Eleven games in, the Colts sit tied for first in the league with just 11 sacks allowed – an unthinkable metric considering the fat totals they’d allowed since quarterback Andrew Luck entered the league in 2012: 41, 32, 29, 37, 44 and 56. During a brilliant four-game stretch, the line went 239 consecutive dropbacks without allowing a single sack, the NFL’s longest such streak since 1991. That’s 27 years.

My how things have changed.

How has Gugs done it? He expounded on a variety of topics Thursday, including how Quenton Nelson’s nastiness has changed film sessions, whether Mark Glowinski is the league’s best-kept secret and how Frank Reich does it differently from any coach he’s ever been around:

» On how Quenton Nelson has changed the vibe in the o-line room:

He’s changed the way the game is played with those guys, or at least, changed the accepted level of play beyond, ‘I’m blocking my guy.’ You see him knock people down, you see him go after linebackers. He plays with a nastiness and brings out the natural nastiness in other players.

To put a guy down? That’s one thing. To put a guy down and lay on him, it’s another thing. You know what I’m saying? You put a guy down and don’t let him get up? That’s a third thing. There’s a degree of, ‘I’m going to make sure you understand what happened to you.’ And it’s natural to him. That’s a great thing. It’s not just how you finish a guy. It’s knocking him down and making sure he stays down.

Let me put it this way: I have a Rottweiler. He’s the friendliest guy you know. But you come in the house in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t want to be there, you know? I wouldn’t want to be that guy. Now, he’s never messed with anybody while I’m standing there, but I wouldn’t want to walk in on him in the middle of the night. (Nelson) plays to the whistle, plays right to the whistle, and he goes down there and picks up his teammates every single play. Most unusual thing I’ve ever seen. Doesn’t matter where it is.

When they get to the bench after a scoring drive, they’re comparing how many times they knocked their guy down – this is what they’re talking about. ‘Coach, I got three.’ ‘Coach, I got four. You’ll see it on the tape.’ And they’ll check the sheet, ‘Hey coach, you missed one, this was a knockdown.’ Because they’re understanding this: We may not come out of the gate on the first play and knock you back five yards, but if we chip away at you, and we are relentless, and are on you and we are cutting you and knocking you down and we are taking a second hit and we are pushing you to the whistle, eventually, you’re gonna start looking. Where is Glowinski? Where is Nelson? Where’s Kelly? Where’s Boehm? Where are they coming from?

Everybody has a vision of those old-time nasty, tape on the arms, the J pad, little dirt on the face, a little bit of blood coming from their nose (linemen of the past). Well, if you put tape on these guys’ wrists and have dirt and old-time facemasks, these guys would be throwbacks to the 50s and 60s. That’s how they play the game, and play within the rules. These guys – with Quenton being a shining example – they know how to finish a football play.
» On whether he’s out there to break his opponent’s will:

That’s what he does. He’s showing (the veterans), ‘This is how I do it.’ And what they’re seeing, right, is ‘Hey, look at that.’ They’re excited to watch some of the things that go on. I’ve seen it in every room. And here I got more than one. And that’s beautiful because they look forward to analyzing the tape, for more than just, ‘Did we get it right? Did we get it wrong?’ Analyzing footwork, where I put my hands … all that other stuff. Which makes watching the film, in some respects, fun, because there are so many exciting things going on.

One thing I’ll say about (Quenton) is he’s not a cheap player. I’m really glad people haven’t painted him that way. There’s no way that he’s cheap. He doesn’t play beyond the whistle. He doesn’t put his hands in guys masks, he doesn’t hold guys, because he doesn’t have to. And that’s what is beautiful about how he plays. He plays within the framework of the game. He plays up, he plays physical. And he’s just explosive.

» How Nelson has helped veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo improve:

Castonzo’s actually altered his game to help Quenton be more efficient, which is a tremendous thing for a veteran like that, especially a left tackle, to alter your game to a rookie. He understands that, and he’s bought in: how he sets will affect Quenton, which will then affect (Ryan) Kelly, which… and so on and so forth.

Anthony has done a much better job this year of finishing plays, and I think that goes across the board. That’s one of the things that was lacking (in the past).

He did it the other day (vs. Miami), he was peeking around in the middle of a block, and it was in the middle of a play and I said, ‘Stop the film!’ I said, ‘Anthony, what are you looking for?’ They wanna see what’s going on. If you’re looking over there, you’re not finishing your guy. You don’t need to be a spectator. You need to finish. If you’re done with that guy, go find another one. That’s the attitude these interior guys are really getting.
» On whether Mark Glowinski is one of the best-kept secrets in football:

I don’t know if it’s a secret anymore. I get calls from all over the league, my fellow coaches, and the first question they ask is, ‘Where’d you find 64?’ It’s usually calling about some scheme, a team we played, whatever, or to share some thoughts. ‘Boy you got a good one in 56 (Nelson), but where’d you find 64?’ Like, right away they transition into Glowinski. He jumps off the tape because he’s faster than any of them, to be honest with you. He’s the fastest guy I got, flat-out running. And when he plays, he sometimes looks like the Tasmanian Devil out there. He was once a secret, and again, I credit Chris Ballard and his crew for finding that and knowing that there was something there.
» How Frank Reich is different from any other head coach he’s worked with:

Look, I’ve been around (Lou) Holtz, (Bill) Belichick and (Tom) Coughlin, I’ve been around some good head coaches, I’ve worked with some really, really high-respected head coaches, and I would say Frank does as good a job as any of those guys managing these people, knowing his players … He’s done a masterful job of keeping the o-line – which is usually looked at like a separate entity, (like) we operate in a bubble sometimes – (included).

The guy who leads the (blitz) meeting – I’ve been around a long time, and it’s always been the line coach – here, it’s the head coach. We all do our research and get ready, but Frank runs it. And if you can imagine what it’s like … it’s a different meeting. Andrew sits right in the front row, next to the center. Sometimes (if you’re an offensive lineman) you don’t see the head coach, don’t even interact with the head coach unless he’s yelling at you about something. Here, Frank runs the meeting twice a week. And we don’t go to him. He comes into the o-line room and stands in the front of the room. And you can’t take away the significance of that for linemen who, for years and years, the head coach has been (in another part of the building). He’s with them. He’s in the trenches with them. And it’s probably a result of him playing QB behind guys like that. And I love it.

Marvin Harrison Jersey

The Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2014 will be enshrined on Saturday. Each day this week, the Around the League crew will pick a player that we believe is also deserving of enshrinement.

Marvin Harrison is a first-ballot Hall of Famer that will be forced to wait an extra year for induction for some unknowable reason.

Other all-time greats have had to wait. Fran Tarkenton and Joe Namath both had to wait until their third year of eligibility. Mel Renfro made 10 Pro Bowls and had to wait 15 years. It happens.

Still, there’s no explaining the choice of Andre Reed over Harrison last year — other than voters who wanted to squeeze Reed in before it was too late. Even the Bills legend’s biggest backers would have a hard time making a sensible argument against Harrison.

It’s an honor to make the All-Pro first team. It says you are one of the two best receivers in the league in that given year. The Pro Football Hall of Fame already has named Harrison one of the best two receivers in an entire decade, choosing Randy Moss and Harrison as their first-team wide receivers from the 2000s.

It’s hard to know where to start when coming up with insane stats for Harrison. There was a four-year stretch where he averaged 117 catches, 1,580 yards and 14 touchdowns. And then Harrison gained at least 1,100 yards with 10 scores for another four years after that. He was first- or second-team All-Pro in all eight of those years.

Harrison still holds the record for receptions in a season with 143. Only Jerry Rice and Tony Gonzalez have caught more passes in the NFL than Harrison. But Harrison doesn’t often get mentioned in the same breath as those kind of players. Perhaps it’s because Harrison did things so quietly as a player. He never made headlines with his mouth like Moss or Terrell Owens — even his game was somewhat quiet. Harrison didn’t dominate receivers with his size or strength, but with smarts, route running, speed and mitts. Harrison seemingly was always open. He knew how to set up defenders, almost lulling them to sleep before exploding past them. Few receivers were better on the boundaries. Harrison’s hands snatched passes that looked headed out of bounds, and he had incredible body control.

It’s almost as if voters hold it against Harrison that he played with Peyton Manning. We see it another way. Harrison was the one teammate that could truly raise his game to Manning’s level. Their almost telepathic connection says a lot about Harrison’s football smarts. Not many players can be on the same wavelength as Manning, and back it up with a Hall of Fame skill set.

The mysterious story surrounding Harrison and a Philadelphia gunfight in 2008 has overshadowed his post-playing life. But the voters are not supposed to take any off-field factors into account.

Based on his playing career, Harrison is a no-brainer Hall of Famer, one of the 10 greatest receivers of all time. He should arrive in Canton next summer, even if it’s coming a year too late.

The latest Around The League Podcast visits with former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum and discusses the best of the early training-camp surprises.

Marshall Faulk Jersey

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Jan. 22, 2019) – Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) announced today that Todd Gilliland will return to the organization as the full-time driver of the No. 4 Tundra for the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series (NGOTS) season. JBL, part of the HARMAN portfolio of legendary audio brands- and Mobil 1™, the world’s leading synthetic motor oil brand, are also both returning as primary sponsors on Gilliland’s Toyota.

Gilliland competed in 19 of 23 races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) for KBM in 2018, moving into a full-time role once he turned 18 on May 15. Despite missing four races early in the season due to age restrictions, he finished 10th in the championship standings after posting one pole, 208 laps led, four top-five and nine top-10 finishes. Overall in two part-time seasons competing for the organization, the NASCAR Next alum has tallied six top-five and 12 top-10 finishes across his 25 starts since making his Truck Series debut at Dover (Del.) International Speedway in June of 2017.

“I’m excited to be returning to the seat of the No. 4 Tundra at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2019 and looking to build on the momentum that we had going at the end of 2018,” Gilliland said. “Last year we definitely had some high points and low points, so my goal is to be more consistent throughout the season. After being so close a couple times last year, I’m confident that I’ll be able to find victory lane this year and once that happens more wins will follow. I’m ready to reward everyone at JBL, Mobil 1, Toyota and TRD for their continued support.”

“There was a lot of pressure on Todd last year early in the season after he had to miss four of the first six races due to age restrictions and then needed to get a win to become eligible for the playoffs,” Kyle Busch said. “I think maybe he was pushing a little too hard to try and dig himself out of that hole. While it was unfortunate that he didn’t make the playoffs, at the end of the year he did a much better job and if it wasn’t for a few unfortunate endings he should’ve won two races. We’re looking for him to continue the progress that he made at the end of last year and be a contender for the championship this season.”

In addition to his Truck Series schedule in 2018, the North Carolina native made a handful of starts in both the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and the ARCA Racing Series. Gilliland went to victory lane twice in just three starts in the K&N Pro Series East; the season-opening event at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway in February and again at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in April. In the ARCA Racing Series, he tallied one pole, two top-five and three top-10 finishes across four starts in 2018.

Gilliland captured back-to-back K&N Pro Series West championships in 2016 and 2017, collecting six wins each season. He also finished second in the 2017 K&N Pro Series East standings while collecting a series-high four wins. The 18-year-old has won a remarkable 39.2% (20 of 51) of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series races he has competed in combined between the East and West Series since he became the youngest winner in West Series history after going to victory lane in his debut as a 15-year-old in November of 2015. Gilliland is also the youngest driver ever to win an ARCA Racing Series race, winning his series debut in May of 2015 at Toledo (Ohio) Speedway, also at the age of 15.

The third-generation driveris the son of former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver David Gilliland and the grandson of 1997 NASCAR Winston West champion, Butch Gilliland.

Johnny Unitas Jersey

Jack Gilden, of Dunkirk Road, signed a contract with the University of Nebraska Press to publish his book, “Triumph and Disaster,” a story about the contentious relationship between legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and his coach, Don Shula, during the 1960s.

In the book, Jack details how Unitas and Shula helped shape American culture through their successes and failures during a period in our country’s history that straddled social issues around the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution. Jack first conceived of the idea when he was a 15-year-old student attending a journalism conference at the former Colts training complex in Owings Mills.

“That’s where I heard the great newspaperman, John Steadman, talked about how the greatest quarterback and the winningest coach in NFL history did not get along,” said Jack.

That idea resonated with him for decades so he set out to discover how two people who did not care for one another personally could manage such successful and intertwined careers. He interviewed numerous legends to understand the dynamic, meeting with Raymond Berry, Don Shula, Joe Namath, Jimmy Orr, Bobby Boyd, Sam Havrilack, Tom Matte, Gay Talese, Gary Collins, Frank Ryan, Bill Curry, Dan Sullivan, Charley Winner, and Jan Unitas.

In 2018, when the book hits shelves, you can read all about it. I bet if you see Jack out and about walking his dog, Angel, you can probably even get him to autograph a copy for you. That’s my plan.

Dumbarton Middle School held its Farewell Assembly for 8th-graders June 7 at Loch Raven High School. Many students were recognized for their achievements and hard work over the past three years; however, one student really stood out for his many talents and accomplishments. Congratulations to Griffin Mekler-Culbertson, of Overbrook Road, who not only attended every day of school for all three years, but also earned straight A’s in every quarter.

Rob Ambrose, of Lanark Road, the Towson University football coach, along with John Putnam, of Rodgers Court, who is the Towson Rec Council football commissioner, John’s son, Fisher, and Fisher’s friend, Alex Sebring, hauled a ton of junk and treasurers June 3 during the annual Rodgers Forge Dumpster Day, sponsored by the Rodgers Forge Community Association.

Rob, John, Fisher, and Alex were volunteers who worked their bums off to help 245 residents unload items from their cars that had been collecting dust in garages and basements all around the Forge. The items were sorted for donation, trash, or recycling in the hot summer sun of the Rodgers Forge Elementary School parking lot.

Happy 15th anniversary to Rachel Morris and Noah Melnick, of Dumbarton Road, who are celebrating the milestone with a Groupon adventure. Congratulations, you two.

Do you have some good news? Did you recently go on an exciting trip, receive a promotion, achieve a personal goal? Do you know someone who brings joy to our community and want to clue me in? I would love to write about it.