It’s easy to look at Colts linebacker Darius Leonard now and wonder how in the world he ended up at South Carolina State University. Players with his skill usually grace the great college programs such as Alabama University and Clemson University.
Leonard doesn’t see it that way, though.
First off, if he wanted to play football anywhere else, he would have had to walk on the team. Clemson was his top choice — he grew up as a fan and that’s where his older brother, Anthony Waters, played — but the Tigers withdrew their scholarship offer after Leonard’s qualifying SAT scores came in two weeks after national signing day.
The only scholarship offer left on the table after that: South Carolina State, an HBCU that competes at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
“I wanted to go and show that they had something nice,” Leonard said, “and make people know they missed out on me. I was kind of glad that I was overlooked, so I went to South Carolina State and balled out there.”
In a game against Clemson in 2016, South Carolina State got blown out 59-0, but Leonard easily led both teams with 19 total tackles. That Clemson offense was led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, who Leonard intercepted Oct. 20 to seal a Colts victory in a pivotal division game.
When the Colts selected Leonard in the second round of the 2018 draft, a Bleacher Report writer called it “one of the draft’s worst moves.”
A realistic prove-‘em-wrong tour might include a few Pro-Bowl selections throughout his career, maybe some seasons where he leads a good defense in tackles. But Leonard started this right away.
He was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week twice in his rookie season, named to the Associated Press All-Pro first team and won Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Leonard, a team captain this season, missed three games with a concussion but is still third on the team in total tackles, and his one interception against the Texans gave him as many as anyone else.
Leonard said he’s “definitely putting on for HBCUs” when he takes the field. Some HBCUs have been powerhouses — think of Grambling State University — but they’re generally an afterthought for the country’s best high school players deciding where they want to go to college.
Leonard thinks the media is partly to blame for that. When there’s not much coverage, especially nationally, his hypothesis is that talented players stay away from those schools because they’re worried they won’t get the necessary publicity to make it to the NFL.
“Y’all don’t cover that,” he said. “… Y’all need to do a better job of doing research on HBCU guys because there’s some ballers there.”
Here’s some research: The closest HBCU, Simmons College, is about two hours south of Indianapolis in Louisville, Kentucky. But point taken.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.