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Clemson didn’t want Darius Leonard, but now the NFL does

S.C. State All-America linebacker is MEAC’s top defender and has the drive to play on Sundays


ORANGEBURG, South Carolina — Darius Leonard skidded into South Carolina State University in 2013 as a freshman, and he was bitter. His dream to play football at Clemson was smothered when the Tigers did not offer him a scholarship on national signing day six months earlier. He can still remember how distraught he was that night when he looked at the phone for the last time, perhaps thinking he had missed the call from head coach Dabo Swinney.

He knew what was going on.

“My brother played at Clemson, I stayed at Death Valley, I went to camps, I really wanted to go there,” Leonard said. “It hurt me pretty bad when they didn’t call. They told me in the fall they had a scholarship for me.”

Clemson had everything: a colossal stadium, thousands of fans, national recognition and all the orange sportswear he could stuff into his closet.

Leonard didn’t go to Clemson, which had everything, but he found all he needed at S.C. State.

A football field, some good coaching — and a grudge.

There is nothing like a good grudge to propel a career.

“A chip on my shoulder?” Leonard said with a wry smile. “I’d say so. It’s a big chip. Still got it.”

The perceived slight was transformative. Leonard was angry, and he, not Clemson, was going to decide what happened next with his career. He made his stand at S.C. State, a historically black institution. He lifted weights, attended to school work, took in coaching from a veteran staff.

While Clemson was winning the national championship, Leonard got his licks in too. He was the 2016 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and has charged up the NFL prospect list. Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, said Leonard could be as high as a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. How is that for vindication? Or maybe retribution?

Bitterness is not empty calories when you combine it with skill. Leonard’s muscle can hold the edge, and his speed (4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash) can cover in space. His sure feet and disciplined stance keep him centered on the ball carrier who fakes, and his tackling technique is solid: arms shoot up behind the shoulder pads to wrap and take an opponent to the ground.

In eight games this season, Leonard has 95 tackles, including seven for loss, and 61 solo, which is usually the data on a middle linebacker, not a guy on the edge of the defense as a weakside linebacker. He makes plays wherever. Leonard has intercepted two passes and collected 3.5 sacks and has been credited with seven quarterback hurries.

“Darius is an ideal modern-day linebacker because of his speed and athletic ability,” Savage said. “He is versatile enough to play in the box or expand outside and defend in the open field. He should be able to help right away as a rookie on special teams and in sub situations.”

Leonard’s emergence as an NFL prospect is the manifesto of so many small-college football stars. They feel harmed and humiliated that they were not recruited by a big school. It’s the locomotion that drives them. They can’t help it.

Five years ago, Leonard was scarecrow-thin at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds. That would have been reason enough for Clemson to pass on him since he wasn’t fast enough to play wide receiver at that weight. He was too light to play defensive end. But the Tigers had his brother, Anthony Waters, who was also 180 pounds as a high school senior as an 18-year-old and grew into a ferocious 230-pound linebacker.

Leonard, who is from Lake View, South Carolina, was also a late qualifier academically. A spokesman for the school said Clemson does not offer athletic scholarships to nonqualifiers.

Whatever, Leonard said. He did look in the mirror eventually and accepted that some of this was on him for not having the test score. But he also felt the Tigers knew his family well enough to take a chance that he would grow and get his stuff together academically. He knew what they were really thinking, or maybe he just needed to think the worst of his school to inspire himself.

“Me, coming from a 1A high school, I was underestimated,” he said. “That was the big thing. It hurt me pretty bad when they didn’t call. I got the score two weeks later [after signing day]. I called, and they told me they gave my scholarship away. They said I could be a preferred walk-on.”

There are all kinds of variables that keep guys off TV on Saturday and set them up for TV on Sunday. It’s size (running back Tarik Cohen of the Chicago Bears, North Carolina A&T), lack of exposure (tackle Ryan Schraeder of the Atlanta Falcons, Valdosta State), being a late bloomer (quarterback Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles, North Dakota State). And here comes Leonard, chugging down the path of “I’ll show you.”

Leonard wanted retribution even more because Clemson was family. Besides his brother playing there, Leonard always wore the orange growing up. He went to summer football camps at Death Valley. Waters was selected in the third round of the 2007 NFL draft by San Diego, and Leonard saw himself following right behind his brother.

And then he wasn’t behind him at all. Leonard was left behind.

It is not a given that the player shunned by a Power 5 school is going to turn that chip on his shoulder into a ferocious motor in the weight room or on the practice field and develop into an “I told you so” story. Some discounted players lose their self-esteem and never get it back. They become “OK” players, or no player at all.

“That’s the fork in the road,” said Ed Etzel, a sports psychologist at West Virginia University and a former Olympian. “It speaks volumes that he [Leonard] could convert that into something positive. People have this capacity to redirect. You either sit on it, or you get up and do something about it with energy and enthusiasm.”

At first, Leonard did not have the energy and enthusiasm to fight back. He thought to himself that maybe Clemson was right, that he didn’t belong there.

Eventually, with the help of S.C. State head coach Buddy Pough and his staff, Leonard believed again that he was an authentic player, a big-timer. You can see his assertiveness on the field as he fills gaps in run defense, plays in space when it’s a pass and tackles confidently in the open field. Leonard has better tackling technique than lots of Division I players. Leonard is a boss and plays with something extra.

“That chip is worth a whole lot,” Leonard said.

Whatever the reason he missed out, Leonard has been determined not to be denied his next dream, which is to play in the NFL.

Pough was working with the offense in fall 2013 when he glanced across the line at Leonard playing scout team defense during his redshirt freshman year. Pough turned to an assistant coach and said, “Are we redshirting one of the best players we have?”

Pough and his staff resisted taking the redshirt off. They knew they had a special player, but they had to wait for his own good, and their own good. Maybe that’s what Leonard and these small-college guys get that sets them on the upward trajectory. Love and attention.

“A smaller place offers different status,” Etzel said. “You go where people value you and you are not a pawn. Maybe it’s a better place for a guy like him in the long run.”

Pough is thankful Clemson was impatient, or didn’t like Leonard, or whatever it was.

“Sure, he qualified late, but the real problem was he was 6-2, 180 pounds,” Pough said. “Some guys are 180 and they don’t get as big as Darius Leonard. But he came from an athletic family, and his family had a reputation for getting bigger. His brother was the same frame in high school, 180, and he went to Clemson and got bigger.

“It wasn’t like they didn’t know him. They just didn’t want to wait on him.”

Leonard’s story is significant because the Division I recruiting calendar has changed and more nonqualifiers like Leonard are going to run out of time to get their grades in order and thus get left behind.

Prospects can begin taking official visits in the spring of their junior year, not their senior seasons. Offers will fly out soon after those visits. Two player personnel directors in the Southeastern Conference expect recruiting classes to fill up quicker. The first signing date is now in December, and big schools could have 20 to 22 players signed by then. That does not leave much room for the late qualifier.

“The pace of recruiting has accelerated the last few years,” said one SEC player personnel director. “Now guys are going to come for official visits in April and it’s going to be even more accelerated. Some guys are going to be written off before their junior year in high school ends.”

Leonard has cherished his time and his team at South Carolina State. He has been coached up and given responsibilities to lead the defense. The Bulldogs have won six MEAC championships under Pough, who has been at the school since 2002 and knows how to get players ready for the NFL.

Leonard stays connected to his high school and says he doesn’t want another worthy player passed over like he was. He returns to Lake View every spring after the S.C. State spring semester dismisses. Daryl King, the Lake View coach, said Leonard is in the weight room every morning at 7 to lift weights and inspire.

“My high school coach told me, ‘Don’t let somebody else determine your future,’ ” Leonard said. “I came from a small school, and he said, ‘It’s not the size of the dog, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ ”

There is one more special thing about the small dog who grew into a big dog.

“All I do is watch Clemson,” he said. “I still go to their games and wear my Clemson gear.”

There was a reckoning of sorts on Sept. 17, 2016.

S.C. State played at Clemson, and Leonard did not whiff on the opportunity. The Bulldogs were trounced 59-0, but he made himself noticeable by getting in on 19 tackles and blocking a field goal. Leonard was on his field of dreams in Death Valley, out of exile, but only for an afternoon.

“It was great to go out there and show them what they could have had,” Leonard said.

Clemson, of course, didn’t have to apologize for anything. The Tigers went on to win a national championship without him. He will likely go on to a pro career without them. Call it even, in the end.

Ray Glier, one of 11 kids, is a mercenary journalist in Atlanta and has worked for The Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post, USA TODAY, Al Jazeera America, among many others. Lives by "If you're not buying what I'm selling, it's my fault, not yours."