A number of the top FCS prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft do their damage on the offensive side of the ball. They include: possible first-round tight end Dallas Goedert of South Dakota State; Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta; offensive linemen Brandon Parker of North Carolina A&T and Timon Parris of Stony Brook; as well as Northern Iowa wide receiver Daurice Fountain.
The defensive player who could break that logjam is South Carolina State outside linebacker Darius Leonard, possibly as the second FCS player selected after Goedert. The 6-foot-2, 234-pound Leonard is generally projected to be picked in the third or fourth round of the April 26-28 draft at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
During the long buildup to the draft, Leonard said his motivation has been “going against the bigger talent and showing the scouts and everybody that I can play with any competition, and actually show that I'm a great player like any other big name or any other big-school guy.”
Leonard has excelled in some of his bigger opportunities. As a junior in 2016, he racked up a career-high 19 tackles and blocked a field goal against eventual national champion Clemson. To open his senior season, he had 12 tackles and a sack against Southern in the nationally televised MEAC-SWAC Challenge. He also had a strong week of practice at the 2018 Reese’s Senior Bowl before totaling a game-high 14 tackles for the winning West squad.
A two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard’s long strides gives him the range for going sideline to sideline. He was in on a school-record 394 career tackles, including 53 for a loss and 21.5 sacks, with nine takeaways.
Wrote Dane Brugler, the senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com: “Lining up as the WILL in South Carolina State’s 4-2-5 scheme, Leonard looks the part with his long, athletic frame, showing the play range to blitz, play both sidelines and drop in traffic. He needs to shore up his anticipation to get a head start on the play, but the tape matches the production.”
South Carolina State has done well with sending players on to the NFL, so Leonard has drawn upon former teammates Antonio Hamilton, Javon Hargrave, Temarrick Hemingway and Joe Thomas for advice about playing on the next level. And talk about keeping it all in the family, Anthony Waters, Leonard’s half-brother, also was an NFL linebacker, most notably on the 2010 New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl-winning team.
“Coming from a small school, where we can be underrated... they just told me to keep my focus, just keep being me because one day my time’s going to come,” Leonard said, “and when it comes, it’s going to be there and I just have to keep doing the right thing.”
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photos courtesy of South Carolina State Athletics)