Darius Leonard didn’t let a lingering left ankle injury inhibit him from making a memorable splash as a rookie linebacker who led the NFL in tackles and was voted the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
But he was surprised by the suggestion on Monday that after accomplishing so much, he no longer has a chip on his proverbial shoulder pads.
“The Maniac” will always have that chip, he insisted. That motivated mindset got him where he is today as the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive leader at the tender age of 23.
“I wasn’t named MVP, I wasn’t a Super Bowl champion and I wasn’t a Pro Bowler,” Leonard said. “So, there are still goals I hadn’t reached last year. So, I just go in with the same mindset as proving everybody wrong and just out working everybody on the field.”
When advised that not many defensive players are named NFL MVP, Leonard didn’t hesitate.
“It’s still a chip,” he said. “You make a goal and you strive to get that goal.”
He isn’t participating in the team’s three-day minicamp this week. The rehabilitation timetable for ankle surgery he underwent in May is about six weeks. Leonard said he expects to be ready when veterans report for training camp on July 25.
"That's the plan," he said.
The second-round pick out of South Carolina State missed only one start despite the ankle injury and finished the regular season with 163 total tackles, seven sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He added 27 total tackles in the Colts’ two playoff games.
Leonard suffered the injury at some point before sitting out his only game in Week 5. As much as his pro debut was loaded with superlatives, it’s nothing short of amazing that he continued to amass statistics despite playing hurt.
He was surprised that an offseason of rest didn’t heal the problem, which necessitated surgery.
“Yeah, I thought with the rest that it would heal by itself, but coming back running on it, it didn’t feel good,” Leonard said. “I wasn’t 100 percent, so I was just glad we caught it when we did.”
He attributed injury issues to his playing weight. Leonard arrived at 234 pounds, much heavier than he wants to be. By the end of his rookie year, he weighed about 215. While that might seem light for the position by NFL standards, his goal is to play at under 225. His college playing weight ranged from 215 to 220.
“Now my goal is to not get over 225,” he said.
Leonard opened eyes from the get-go with an interception of quarterback Andrew Luck at training camp. His speed and penchant for making plays from the weakside linebacker spot catapulted this previous unknown to the status of team leader.
Leonard isn’t one to talk too much, preferring to lead by example, but his desire and intensity were undeniable, even when he was playing on a bum ankle.
“It was very difficult, but the coaches, they did a great job of keeping me out of practice towards the end of the week and trying to rest it up a little bit,” he said of last year. “So, they knew all the right things to get me right.
“Since the rehab, I’m feeling pretty good. I’m actually running around. I’m doing all types of good things. So, I feel much better now than I did going into surgery.”
The Colts jumped from 4-12 to 10-6 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Whereas they were an overlooked AFC team at the outset of 2018, they enter this year being heaped with hype as a Super Bowl contender.
Leonard, always looking for that motivational edge, remembers how the season ended with a 31-13 AFC Divisional Playoff loss at Kansas City.
“That’s not how you want to finish a season,” he said. “We want to put the league on notice that we know how to finish a season.”
And he assured that coming from humble beginnings will always have him fired up to play and prove his worth.
“Coming from where I came from, not having much growing up and just knowing that I’m one step away back from being where I came, I was just to come to work every day and strive to be the best,” he said.