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Rookie linebacker improving by leaps, bounds for Colts

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

By MICHAEL MAROT

AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The Indianapolis Colts figured Darius Leonard would emerge as a defensive playmaker one day.

He skipped the learning curve.

Two weeks into his rookie season, the weakside linebacker leads the NFL with 27 tackles, already has forced one fumble, recovered another, had a sack and provided a new, dynamic dimension in the Colts' rebuilt defense.

"When we came here, there were only one or two guys (at linebacker)," defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said Tuesday.

"He was kind of thrust into that position and we treated him as such. He's grabbed that role, taken it and he's done a good job with it."

Just how impressive has the 6-foot-2, 234-pound, 23-year-old been?

Leonard's 18-tackle performance Sunday at Washington was the fifth-best grade by a linebacker since Eberflus implemented his points system in 1995.

Some view Leonard's immediate impact as a surprise, but he was pretty impressive in college.

Leonard set the career record for tackles (394) at South Carolina State, a Football Championship Subdivision school largely overshadowed by the state's more prominent programs at Clemson and South Carolina as well as Furman, the 1988 FCS national champions.

Twice he was selected as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference defensive player of the year and Leonard got his nickname "Maniac" following a 19-tackle performance against Clemson in 2016.

The knock on him going into the draft was he needed more size and strength to hold up in the NFL and time to make the transition from small-school star to NFL contributor.

Colts general manager Chris Ballard saw it differently after watching Leonard for one week in Mobile, Alabama, in January.

"You always want to watch the small school guys when you go to the Senior Bowl because now they're facing the bigger competition," Ballard said after making Leonard the first of Indy's four second-round draft picks in April.

"I thought he stood out. His speed, his athleticism, his ability to cover. When the four 'backers went, we thought Darius was the fifth-best backer in the draft."

Leonard certainly has played like it.

Despite missing all but one day of offseason workouts, Leonard returned to the field when the Colts' rookies reported in late July and made a quick impression on the veterans.

"I think it was pretty much the first time you saw it, the first practice of training camp when he caught the interception off of Andrew Luck," second-year linebacker Anthony Walker said.

"First of all, that's a big-time quarterback there and that was a big-time play. We knew right there - that's why we drafted him."

Leonard continued playing well during the preseason and his ability to stay healthy allowed him not only to win a starting job, but also the right to call the defensive signals in the huddle.

So far, he's flashed the speed to make plays from sideline to sideline and deliver game-changing ones, too.

But Leonard's best attribute might be his attitude.

He's eager to clean up mistakes, remains humble and enjoys breaking down game tapes.

That's hardly a surprise from someone who helped decipher prep games so he could help coach players at his high school while he was in college.

"I just work hard and just take coaching," he said. "That's the big thing, I take all the coaching I can get, follow all the details and do all the little things."

It's made a huge difference in one of the league's most inexperienced linebacker groups.

Leonard, Walker and free-agent signee linebacker Najee Goode have combined for 12 NFL starts - exactly half coming during the first two weeks this season.

And, so far, Leonard has been the star with back-to-back memorable performances that have surprised the doubters but nobody in the Colts' locker room.

"As a rookie, it's hard to find someone like that - someone who prepares the way he prepares. The things that he does really sets him apart," Walker said.

"He's miles ahead of where I was last year and just the confidence and stuff he plays with, he's miles ahead of me."

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Updated September 19, 2018

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