Playing Within the System
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There was a brief moment, before the 2010 West Virginia University football season opened, of uncertainty for the Mountaineer defense. While the unit returned almost every starter from one year ago, its counterpart, the WVU offense, had holes to fill, most notably at quarterback.
Sophomore Geno Smith had been tapped to take over the reigns, but without a start to his name, the Mountaineer defense knew that protecting the strong-armed slinger was not going to be the offensive line’s sole responsibility.
“Coming into this year, our game plan was to help Geno make the plays,” redshirt-senior linebacker Anthony Leonard recalled. “He needed to make plays to gain confidence. We knew he could make the plays down the road, but we weren’t sure how (offensive coordinator) coach (Jeff) Mullen was going to call the games.
“Our goal at the beginning of the season was to try our hardest to give the offense a short field to work with so it could score.”
Leonard, a McKeesport, Pa. native, is used to fulfilling whatever duty is thrust upon him. A first team Class 4A all-state performer at Pittsburgh’s McKeesport High, Leonard saw limited action at strong-side linebacker after redshirting in 2006 before starting six games in 2008 following a season-ending injury to Reed Williams. The 6-foot-1, 246-pound punisher made the most of his increased time, finishing the year with 59 tackles, including 19 unassisted, and one interception.
With Williams’ return in 2009, Leonard lost his starting position, but not his drive to help the Mountaineers succeed. Again a vital part of WVU’s feared linebacker corps, Leonard entered his final season in Morgantown focused and determined.
“I went into this year just like I go into every day when I wake up – I want to get the best out of it,” said the athletic coaching education major. “The fact that I’m playing well comes from preparation and hard work. When I do everything that the coaches want me to do, good things happen.”
The WVU coaches, specifically defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Jeff Casteel, have stressed that Leonard should let the game come to him.
“The last couple of years, I tried to go out and grab (the game), and it just wasn’t happening,” explained Leonard. “I found myself stepping outside of the system to do that, and that’s the last thing that a coach wants you to do.
“This year, my goal was to make plays within the system, and anything extra was just God coaching me to make those plays. I feel as though I haven’t changed much this year – I still work hard and get after everything, but now I’m dotting my I’s and crossing my T’s.”
A preseason injury to classmate Pat Lazear forced Leonard from strong-side to middle linebacker, and just like 2008, the Athletic Director’s Academic Honor Roll honoree has adapted admirably. Through this season’s first four games, Leonard leads WVU with 27 total tackles, the seventh-best mark in the BIG EAST Conference, and registered his first career sack in the Mountaineers’ thrilling victory over Maryland on Sept. 18.
“It’s a blessing to be able to fill in for anyone, but that gift also comes with hard work,” Leonard mused. “Playing linebacker, you can’t just learn one position; you have to know what everyone is doing. That comes from experience.
“When my number was called a few years ago, I was ready to step in. I told myself it was a blessing. You could have put anyone in the position I was in, and he could have done just as well. It was just my time to shine.”
Leonard is excited about what he has seen from the Mountaineer defense in the early part of the season. WVU opened the year with a shutout over Coastal Carolina, and since that first game, has held its opponents to only 58 combined points, allowing on average 14.5 points per game and ranking No. 2 in the conference in scoring defense.
The Mountaineers have made a home at the top of several BIG EAST statistical categories, as the team ranks No. 1 in total defense (249.2 yards/game), rushing defense (84.5 yards/game), pass defense (164.8 yards/game) and sacks (2.5 per game).
Leonard credits the unit’s movement, particularly that of the linebackers, for much of the success.
“We (the linebackers) orchestrate the whole movement of the unit, from the back to the front,” he explained. “For example, at the Marshall game, the linebackers moved around a lot during that game. It almost got to the point that Marshall didn’t know who to block.
“I feel like that’s what we want to get into more as the season goes on. Hopefully, we’ll start to get our linemen moving around, too, and so forth. We could get Chris (Neild) and Julian (Miller) to stand up and switch around. We have gotten into that a little bit, but it’s definitely something we’ll start doing more as we get into conference play.”
As Leonard continues to enjoy a senior campaign most dream of, he does try to break away from football every now and again, though few fans would guess where he sneaks off to.
“I like to go to the theatre and watch plays,” he said matter-of-factly. “I had to go (to a play) for my theatre class, and then I found myself liking the plays. I thought they were fun, so I went to see a couple more after that first one.”
As far as musicals go, Leonard can do without.
“The last musical I saw was Sweeney Todd, and it was good, but my pet peeve about musicals is that they sing the whole song,” he sighed while mocking sleep. “I just keep thinking about when it will be done!”
One act Leonard is in no rush to complete is the 2010 WVU football season. In fact, he hopes the moments that lead up to the Mountaineers’ final bow tick by slowly.
“Just like anyone else would say, I want to go out on top and not leave any regrets,” he said. “I want to just live in the moment, like right now. I’m taking every situation like that, whether it’s a game, or in the classroom, or whatever – I’m just living for the moment right now.”
Leonard exceeded expectations two years ago, and he continues to leap over limitations in his quest for one more BIG EAST Conference championship. The same can be said for the young quarterback he seeks to protect.
“Geno has grown over (previous) expectations and he’s walking in his own shoes,” Leonard summarized. “He’s not only becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the BIG EAST, but a team leader, too.”
Leonard laughed before leaving opposing offenses with one last warning on the Mountaineers’ defensive system.
“We still want to give Geno a short field.”
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