There is most certainly a buzz around the Duke University football team that sits one win away from its first postseason action since 2018 following last Saturday's road win over the Miami …
There is most certainly a buzz around the Duke University football team that sits one win away from its first postseason action since 2018 following last Saturday's road win over the Miami Hurricanes.
As sophomore starting quarterback Riley Leonard put it, two words come to his mind.
"Confidence and swagger," Leonard said in a Monday interview. "Those are some things we haven't had for a couple of years."
While he may get attention as the signal-caller, Leonard's swagger has been consistent since he graduated from Fairhope High School in 2021.
"It's pretty cool. I try not to let anything get to my head, though," Leonard said of being the starting quarterback of a winning Division I football team. "I'm never going to let wins dictate who I am as a person, so I'm the same guy that I was when I stepped foot on campus here as the fifth-string quarterback. I try not to change anything."
While he hails from the Eastern Shore, it was also there that he developed the dream of one day making it to the big stage to help keep Fairhope on the map.
"Honestly, that's one of the things that I take the most pride in just because of the community down there, and the support that I have," Leonard said. "They're kind of my motivation to keep going and to work and do the extra things every single day. I couldn't be more happy with the situation that I'm in and I'm never going to take it for granted because there's a lot of kids back home that wish they were in my shoes."
Leonard is far from the only former Pirate to play college football but following in his predecessors' footsteps was precisely how he formulated the dream he's currently living. He watched those above him ascend to the college ranks but still check in on the hometown team. Now that he's on the other side of things, he's been returning the favor.
"Guys like Wes Baumhower (Alabama, Troy), Gibbs Sherrell (Birmingham Southern), Brett Howell (Virginia Military Institute), they were there when I was a freshman there. I didn't get to know them very well but after the fact, they'd shoot me texts – Nate Andrews, he played for Florida State," Leonard said. "(Now), I talk to Caden Creel the quarterback all the time. He was my backup so obviously we have a great relationship. He's been balling this year, so that's really good to see. And guys like Mickey Herrick, I try to shoot him a text, he's the center. And I know Ben Mosley, I'll text him."
Leonard has balled out himself after he earned the starting job entering his second season at Duke following action in seven games last season where he started one. Through eight games as a starter this season, he had racked up 1,693 passing yards on 143 completions with 10 passing touchdowns.
However, that is not the extent of the 6' 4", 215-pound quarterback's skillset. He developed his running ability in high school and that has flourished in Leonard leading the team in rushing yards (544) and rushing touchdowns (8).
Leonard had a trio of rushing scores last week, including a pair of bruising carries where he juked, spun and ran over tacklers en route to the end zone. One of his coaches described him as playing with a linebacker mentality when he runs the ball, but Leonard said it was in Fairhope that he learned how to really run behind his pads.
"Fairhope kind of toughened me up in a way," Leonard said. "I learned a lot of good character traits from there and that's all credit to my coaches; (head) Coach (Tim) Carter, (quarterbacks) Coach (Joel) Williams, everybody that coached me in football, I give them that credit because they kind of instilled that killer mentality in me from a young age."
That mindset has helped him withstand some big moments already as a starter, including a sold-out crowd for the battle of unbeatens against Kansas Sept. 24 and a raucous rivalry game following an overtime contest the week prior.
"It was great to go in there, I think that was the first sold-out game that I've played it, and it was rocking," Leonard said of the Week 4 game in Lawrence, Kan. "They're a great football team … we almost had College GameDay there so that kind of shows the magnitude and the stakes we were playing at."
Another big moment came last Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, where the Dolphins have played their games since 1987.
"I just kind of took a deep breath because we're in an NFL stadium where so many great players have played like Dan Marino," Leonard said. "To be able to get a win in that stadium was really cool and I didn't fully embrace it until after the time ran out."
All the while, he represented Fairhope with Leonard on the back of his jersey.
"The legacy is something that I take a lot of pride in. When I was in Fairhope, all I wanted to do was go make it and never forget about my roots," he said. "I try to represent Fairhope and my family as best I can everywhere I go, and to the best of my capabilities."