"The record really won't mean much because this is actually my first time playing against Pitt," said Leonard of West Virginia's 1-2 mark against their backyard foes during his playing career. "I played against them my freshman year but I only took like two or three snaps. As a sophomore, I was injured and I didn't play last year so this will be my first time playing against them -- and I can't wait."
Even though he hasn't played against Pitt on the field, Leonard acknowledges a familiarity with many of their players. He has a number of friends who are Panthers, and off the field they are friends. However, he notes all of that goes out the window when the ball is teed up.
"The majority of the people on their team I played street ball with," said Leonard, as he detailed his history with some of the players he will be knocking heads with on Friday. "It will be exciting to get out there. I can't wait. It's all love off of the field. There's no beef or anything like that. It will be different Friday though."
After being recruited by Pittsburgh out of high school, the Panthers did not end up offering Leonard a scholarship. West Virginia did, which obviously set the stage for some motivation in this contest. It wasn't just that factor that played into his decision to come to WVU (he credits the coaching staff and his bonding with defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel as his main reasons for picking the Gold and Blue of West Virginia), but it could well be in the back of his mind when he takes the field as the Mountaineers' starting middle linebacker. Still, he wants to make sure that he and his teammates don't come out so fired up that they make mistakes due to overexuberance.
"It's a big game," admitted Leonard. "But, it's just like any other game. Every game from here on out is an important game to us. It's a tight atmosphere. It's just another game though. We have to get to them."
With Leonard playing just 15 miles from his hometown, many of the senior's friends and family will be on hand to see him compete as his career as a Mountaineer winds down. Leonard is expecting a big showing of support for Friday's game, and he'd like nothing more than to make his first "real" appearance in the Backyard Brawl. That will serve as his Thanksgiving family meeting, since his Thursday will be taken up with team meetings, final video review and the other normal activities that consume the day before the game. It's something that WVU players have had to put up with ever since the Pitt game was moved to the Friday after Thanksgiving, and even though he hasn't participated in the game as much as he would have liked, he is used to the process by now.
Leonard is in something of an odd position, being as this is his first real participation in the Brawl. Typically, seniors are the ones providing guidance in big games, but this will be Leonard's first real on-field exposure. Still, he has responded to every challenge that he's faced this year, so there's no reason to expect that he won't rise to the occasion as he plays the final road game of his career just a short car hop from his childhood home.