Ravens' Leonhard eager for a shot

OWINGS MILLS -- During the Baltimore Ravens' first minicamp last month, a short, stocky safety buzzed around the field with something to prove. Unsigned and at the Ravens' training complex on a trial basis after the Buffalo Bills declined to offer him a $927,000 restricted free agent tender, former Wisconsin star Jim Leonhard was eager for a chance to jam his foot into the door.

Mission accomplished. Immediately following the NFL draft, the Ravens were sufficiently impressed to sign Leonhard to a contract.

"I love the opportunity," Leonhard said during last week's minicamp, his first as an official member of the roster. "I think all you can ask for is a chance to go out there and prove yourself. I think any player in the league would like to be on this defense. It's a great opportunity."

At 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, Leonhard is definitely undersized. However, he doesn't lack athleticism, hitting ability, intelligence or experience.

Leonhard started six games last season because of an injury to starter Ko Simpson, and took advantage of the opportunity by recording a career-high 51 tackles and two interceptions.

Although Leonhard isn't slated to contend for a starting job since Ed Reed and Dawan Landry are well-established, he is expected to compete for a backup job along with draft picks Tom Zbikowski and Hakuri Nakamura while trying to earn a spot on special teams.

"Obviously, the starters are pretty set, so I just want to learn the defense, get in some sub packages and be ready to," Leonhard said. "Special teams, obviously, is a great opportunity to get on the field and make this team."

When Simpson got hurt last season, Leonhard registered a career-high 13 tackles and his first NFL interception against the Denver Broncos last September by picking off an overthrown Jay Cutler pass.

That breakthrough game for Leonhard transpired years removed from Buffalo signing him as an undrafted rookie free agent.

"I was definitely ready for that moment," Leonhard said. "It was my opportunity to show that I was ready."

One week later, Leonhard made Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger pay when he tried to test the Bills' secondary with a deep pass to wideout Santonio Holmes. Playing opposite former first-round draft pick Donte' Whitner, Leonhard finished sixth on the team in tackles and returned four punts for 36 yards.

He underwent surgery in January to repair a painful bone spur in his hip. He also dealt with a torn calf muscle last season.

A Ladysmith, Wis., native, Leonhard is accustomed to not arriving with much fanfare.

He was a walk-on with the Badgers, but wound up with 21 career interceptions to tie Jamar Fletcher for the most in school history. One year later, the two-time All-Big Ten Conference selection and academic All-American was named Wisconsin's Most Valuable Player as he led the nation with 11 interceptions.

Plus, Leonhard held the Big Ten Conference career punt return yardage record until last season when Michigan's Steve Breaston eclipsed his 1,347-yard mark.

"I think as a safety I have good instincts," Leonhard said. "I'm a smart guy. I can read things pretty quickly.

"On special teams, it's all about effort. I'm a guy who wants to be out there on special teams, and that's half the battle. I enjoy helping the team out."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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