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Darius Leonard’s Rise to Defensive Rookie of the Year

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

He was deemed “one of the draft’s worst moves”.

He was rejected from his dream college.

He was snubbed from the Pro Bowl.

Saturday, he was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.


Darius Leonard entered the NFL virtually unknown. While he had dreams of playing for Dabo Swinney in Death Valley, he settled on a small FCS school in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He would become one of the best linebackers in South Carolina State’s history, ending his collegiate career with 394 tackles, 21.5 sacks, six interceptions and eight forced fumbles. He completed his career at SC State as a two-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

“I didn’t get the respect, and I still don’t think I get the respect because of the school I went to,” he told Indy Star’s Zak Keefer. “Nobody knew who I was.”

Colts’ GM Chris Ballard kept his eyes on Leonard throughout the combine and the Colts selected him in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. This decision was met with much criticism, but Ballard knew he’d made the right move.

In his second NFL game he recorded 19 tackles - and that was just the beginning. He finished his rookie season as the NFL’s leading tackler, tallied 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks, eight passes defensed, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He certainly lived up to his “Maniac” nickname.

In addition to being awarded Defensive Rookie of the Year, Leonard won numerous honors throughout the season. He was awarded AFC Defensive Player of the month in December, AFC Defensive Player of the Week in weeks two and 17, Defensive Rookie of the Month in September and NFL Rookie of the Week in weeks two and eight. He and guard Quenton Nelson became the first pair of rookie teammates to be named First Team All Pro since Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers.

The guy really is a maniac.

Not only does he have an armful of honors to show off, but he helped boost a weak defense and turn the Colts around from a 1-5 start to nine straight wins and a Wild Card playoff spot.

”We certainly thought he had the attributes to do that and the physical traits to take that step and that leap. We have felt that all along,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said in December. “We just didn’t know how fast the development would be there. That’s really attributed to him. I mean he has accelerated his learning and has done a good job of picking up the package.”