Monday, August 13, 2007

Leonard Passes First Running Test

Granted, it's just the preseason. But Brian Leonard's first NFL touchdown didn't even bring a perfunctory spike from the Rutgers running back.

In fact, Leonard handed the ball to the referee so quickly that the official was still signaling "touchdown."

"I think the ref was surprised," Leonard said. "He had to reach down to grab it."

Leave it to Rams teammate Steven Jackson to recognize the significance of Leonard's 10-yard touchdown run Friday night against Minnesota.

"He said, 'You've got to get the ball, man,'" Leonard recalled. "'That's your first NFL touchdown.' So Steven was actually running around looking for it. That's just the kind of guy he is."

Jackson apparently found the football Friday in the Metrodome, because equipment manager Todd Hewitt has the ball and will send it out to be "painted" in commemorative fashion.

So chalk up one for the Leonard trophy case. The Rams hope it's the first of many for Leonard, although Jackson obviously is the main man in the St. Louis backfield. The Rams drafted Leonard in the second round in April to spell Jackson, serve as a third-down back and use his size (6 feet 1, 226 pounds) to pass block. So far, so good.

"Just in the first preseason game, he met all of those expectations that we had of him," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "He caught the ball very well. I thought when he had the chance to run the football, he made the most out of his opportunities. ... And he showed some intelligence in the protection part of the game."

Leonard conceded that he was nervous at the start, resulting in a couple of missed holes.

"First couple carries, I was just running," Leonard said. "I wasn't reading my blocks too well. After I settled down, got a few plays in me, I was all right. I think I read the blocks better and had a couple nice runs."

Sure enough, the more he played, the better he looked. By game's end he had more yards rushing (36 to 33) than Minnesota's heralded running back, Adrian Peterson, the No. 7 overall pick in this year's draft.

After a while, it became just football for Leonard. Once he settled in against the Vikings, he displayed a knack for knowing when to put his head down and steam toward a first down, and when to try some shake-and-bake to try to make a defender miss.

"That's the first thing you notice about him as a runner," coach Scott Linehan said. "He just has great instincts. He sees the hole. He gets it done a different way than Steven Jackson. But that's not unusual. He's a guy that understands how to utilize what he does best — which is great vision and run downhill. He makes the decision, and he very rarely takes lost yards."

Although he's less than a year older than Leonard, Jackson, 24, does have three years in the NFL and is serving as a mentor of sorts. Leonard already has grown to admire Jackson's practice habits. And he has taken mental notes on Jackson's running style.

"He's had a huge impact on me," Leonard said. "When Steven hits that hole, he bursts through that hole, and lowers his shoulders, too."

As a result, Leonard has tried to lower his pad level before contact on runs.

"In college, you can get away with it a little bit," Leonard said. "You can play with a high pad level and you can break the arm tackles. But at this level, you've got to lower your shoulders to break those arm tackles."

Jackson already has advised Leonard to try using a little "wiggle" from time to time as a runner.

"Steven told me: 'It's a long season, buddy. You better try to make some of them miss sometime,'" Leonard said.

Those may be words to heed, because Leonard came out of the Minnesota game with sore ribs — although it didn't prevent him from practicing Sunday.

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