Walking around the campus of SUNY Cortland, you might mistake the New York Jets' starting free safety for a college student. Jim Leonhard, standing at 5'8" and 188 pounds, hasn't gotten the recognition he deserves since high school, but his stature has never been overlooked by head coach Rex Ryan.
"It starts with the aptitude he has for this game," Ryan said. "He's smart, physical, talented and a great athlete. I know it sounds crazy, but he's a short guy. That's why he doesn't jump out at you."
Leonhard is going into his second season with the Jets after following Ryan from the Baltimore Ravens in March 2009. He's been one of the intellectual, emotional and physical leaders of the Green & White defense. He certainly isn't the largest man and doesn't have the most bombastic personality on the roster, but the Ladysmith, Wis., native commands respect from his teammates.
"I'm not a get-in-your-face, yelling type of guy," Leonhard said, "but I play with a lot of passion, l play with a lot of energy. So I think the team feeds off that and I guess that I wouldn't consider myself a very vocal leader but I think they follow in my footsteps a little bit."
With cornerback Darrelle Revis not in training camp and the departure of safety Kerry Rhodes and cornerback Lito Sheppard, Leonhard is the only returning starter in the Jets' secondary. The talent around him is still high, but the key to this season will be making sure that everyone in the defensive backfield is on the same page.
"If we communicate, we're going to be hard to beat," Leonhard said. "We have a lot of talent. Antonio [Cromartie] is playing very well. Brodney [Pool] and Kyle Wilson are also stepping up. The guys that were here last year, they're picking up right where they left off. We're playing very well right now on the back end. If we can play well against our offense with the weapons we have right now, we have a great chance this season."
In fact, this group is deep and talented. With veterans like Eric Smith, Dwight Lowery and James Ihedigbo to complement the starters, Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine have a variety of options to choose from and can give quarterbacks fits when they try to read the defense. The catalyst to help those moving parts fit together has been Leonhard.
"We do a lot of different things," Pool said, "so there's always a lot of other DBs on the field. All the guys have been jelling together. There's a big improvement this week from last week — it's been huge."
One thing that all of the defensive backs have been doing this week is getting their hands on the football. Leonhard in particular has shown an uncanny ability to be in the right spot. This morning he racked up yet another interception, coming after Cromartie tipped a pass intended for Brad Smith.
Leonhard has excelled in tipped-ball situations, which harkens back to his days of playing basketball. In fact, he is also a skilled golfer and was seen practicing chipshots on the Cortland Stadium turf Wednesday. In addition, the seventh-year man won the Wisconsin football team's slam dunk contest two times, and in high school he struck out 17 batters in one game.
"Obviously, I wasn't at the plate," Ryan joked. "This guy is a phenomenal athlete. He's smart. He's a Jet."
Leonhard attributes his history of playing a variety of sports with his success today.
"Being a well-rounded athlete playing different sports, if you know how to translate it, it really can make you successful on the football field," he said. "I always talk to kids try to get them do different things. Don't get pigeonholed that you are a football player or that you are a baseball player. Just enjoy sports when you're young and learn from it and hopefully it'll help you out on the long run."
Leonhard's morning interception came on a Mark Sanchez sideline throw for Brad Smith that Antonio Cromartie athletically tipped twice before the safety snagged the pick.
John "The Terminator" Conner continued to impress with his blocking prowess, especially with a sealing pop on a 'backer on what the Jets call an "iso draw." Ryan said of the fifth-round rookie's odds of beating out veteran Tony Richardson for the starting FB job, "There's a chance," but then added, "It's going to be hard to beat out T-Rich." Richardson declined again an invitation to sit out practice and rest his 16th-year legs.
LaDainian Tomlinson continued to run smoothly. Rex: "We all see it — he has a ton left." ... Rob Turner got the start with the ones at C as Nick Mangold stays on the sidelines for both practices after getting hit in the temple the day before by Sione Pouha.
Drew Coleman came on a third-down blitz to sack Sanchez in 11-on-11. Coleman also nearly hit the kick — yes, the kick — of camp when he tried to hit a 37-yard field goal at the end of practice to get the team a night off from their meetings. Coleman, a left-footer, struck the ball well and it had the distance but faded wide right by a couple of yards.
In the shorter afternoon practice, Sanchez and Santonio Holmes, who have been connecting on big plays this camp, hit on another TD pass, this one down the sideline, the pass dropping in just over Dwight Lowery's coverage.
As sweet as that play was, Holmes heaped the praise recently not on himself but on fellow WR Braylon Edwards, calling him potentially the NFL's best receiver.
"I've known Santonio since he was a freshman at Ohio State. He's a great guy," Edwards said. "Obviously, he turned out to be a heck of a player for them and a heck of an NFL player, a Super Bowl MVP. It means a lot coming from him and we work off each other. Since he's come here, it's been nothing but fun and positive and constructive criticism. We're getting better, and add Jerricho Cotchery into the mix, our standards are high. We're trying to learn all the positions. We're trying to get to the position where we have no excuses and we make no mental mistakes as players."
CB Marquice Cole stayed hot — he made a great breakup of Mark Brunell's throw to David Clowney to end the afternoon session. ... Clowney had a few passes he couldn't quite hold on to. ... Matt Slauson continued to work with the ones at LG. ... Attendance for the afternoon under heavy skies but light sprinkles was 1,241.