Rutgers' Leonard just aims to please

Posted: April 25, 2007

IN A DRAFT YEAR when the NFL's tough new personal conduct policy has put a higher premium than ever on character, Brian Leonard is exactly the kind of player commissioner Roger Goodell wants in his Boy Scout troop.

The Rutgers running back is a straight arrow who gets almost as much personal satisfaction from helping little old ladies cross the street as he does from scoring touchdowns.

Last summer, even as the North Jersey school was touting him for the Heisman and spending a ton of money to put his mug on a Times Square billboard, Leonard was taking one for the team and willingly moving over to fullback so that the Scarlet Knights could give more touches to his talented sophomore teammate, Ray Rice.

With Leonard leading him through holes, Rice rushed for 1,794 yards and Rutgers went 11-2. Leonard finished with a career-low 423 rushing yards and saw his touchdown total nosedive from 17 in 2005 to five last year. And didn't complain once.

"It made it a lot easier for me because Ray is not just a heck of a running back, he's also a heck of a guy,'' said Leonard, who didn't get any Heisman votes, but did win the Draddy Award, which is given to the nation's top scholar-athlete. "Yes, I was the star running back for 3 years. But I embraced my role as the fullback. Making a block for Ray felt just as good as scoring an 80-yard touchdown.''

While Leonard intends to take that same there's-no-I-in-team attitude to the NFL, he is hoping that whichever team drafts him this weekend will view him more as a ballcarrier and pass catcher than a lead-blocking fullback.

After bulking up to 238 last season for his fullback duties, he shed 12 pounds before the NFL scouting combine in late February, so he could run faster and convince coaches and scouts that he could play running back.

He got his message across loud and clear in Indy, running an impressive 4.52 40-yard dash and holding his own with the draft's two top-rated running backs, Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson and Cal's Marshawn Lynch, in most of the other speed and change-of-direction tests. He equaled Lynch's 2.60 in the 20-yard dash, clocked a 1.54 to Lynch and Peterson's 1.53 in the 10-yard dash, and bettered both of them in the 20-yard shuttle (4.22 to Peterson's 4.40 and Lynch's 4.58) and the 3-cone drill (6.88 to Peterson and Lynch's 7.09).

"If a team needs me to be a straight-ahead blocking fullback, then that's what I'll do,'' Leonard said. "I don't feel that using me that way would be getting the best out of me, but if the team [that drafts him] wants me to do that, I'll do it. I'm all about helping a team win.

"But I think I'm at my best when I get out in the flat, get the ball in my hands and make people miss. I think I'm the kind of player that can stay on the field from first to fourth down. I can run the ball, catch it, [run] block, pass-block, whatever they need me to do.''

Most of the NFL scouts and personnel people whom the Daily News spoke with for this story agreed with Leonard's self-assessment. They think his future will be as a combination running back-fullback who can be used in a variety of sets and formations. Many teams have given him a second-round grade.

"I think he's going to be a combination guy,'' said Eagles general manager Tom Heckert, whose team is expected to give Leonard a long, hard look with their second-round pick, the 57th overall.

"He'll do whatever you want him to do,'' Heckert said. "He's a big halfback. He's a guy who can play fullback. He's a good special-teams player. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He's a jack-of-all-trades guy. I think he's willing to be a fullback. But I think he can help as a halfback first, then as a fullback.''

The 6-1 1/2, 226-pound Leonard certainly would satisfy Eagles fans craving for a bigger back behind Brian Westbrook. The team re-signed Correll Buckhalter, but his injury history always will be a hold-your-breath concern. He had only 83 carries last season.

The other running back on the Eagles' roster, 5-8, 210-pound Ryan Moats, had only 22 carries in '06 and was inactive for eight of the last nine games, mainly because of his blocking deficiencies and his tendency to fumble.

"Moats is a really good football player,'' Heckert said of his team's third-round pick in the '05 draft. "Unfortunately, he just hasn't played a lot. But we still think highly of him. It's not like we're trying to replace him.''

While some teams still view Leonard as strictly a fullback at the next level, most scouts and draft analysts don't really think he has the size or blocking skills to be a full-time lead blocker.

"To me, at best, he's an average blocker,'' NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "When I first saw him on tape, I thought maybe [he was comparable to] Mike Alstott. I thought maybe that's what people are going to say he is.

"But I went up to Rutgers before their bowl game in December and watched them practice. He's a high-cut, lean kid. He looks more like a tailback than a fullback. Even before he lost the weight.

"I think he can be one of two things. He can be a West Coast fullback, if that's what you want him to be. Where you're going to throw to him a lot and use him in a lot of different ways. Or, I think he's a tailback in a one-back set. I think he can carry the ball 15 to 20 times and catch the football.

"His ability to catch the football is what's really attractive about him. I don't want to hide him and make him a battering ram. It takes away [from] what he does well.''

Buffalo Bills assistant general manager Tom Modrak agrees with both Mayock and Heckert.

"You need a new position for him [between running back and fullback],'' he said. "When you look at him that way, his value goes up a great deal. If you just pigeonhole him as, are you a fullback or are you a halfback, his value is not as high. However, as a combination guy, a move guy, a [pass] catcher, special teams and all the stuff he can do, he's very valuable.

"Plus, we always talk about the 53 [man roster]. Can he make the 53? Well, this guy makes the 45 [game-day roster] because you only have to dress one extra because he can do both [halfback and fullback]." *

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