Ravens' Leonhard a jack of all trades

WESTMINSTER -- The Baltimore Ravens unveiled an unusual defensive configuration against the New England Patriots when they ran out of defensive linemen as diminutive free safety Jim Leonhard raised his hand and volunteered to play nose guard. At 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, Leonhard was outweighed by over a hundred pounds by the Patriots' blockers.

Luckily, he didn't have to engage the Patriots' offensive line in a physical confrontation at the line of scrimmage because his assignment was to drop back into coverage after lining up over the center.

However, a big offensive guard started chasing Leonhard in vain downfield despite it being a pass play.

"They needed an athlete," Leonhard said. "One thing they don't lack is creativity. They threw me in there. We were just kind of scrambling for bodies."

Leonhard's willingness to pitch in is a major part of his repertoire and personality.

The former Buffalo Bills defensive back is adept at blitzing and dropping back into pass coverage and matching up with much larger tight ends and wide receivers. He also has the versatility to return punts or cover kicks.

"He does a lot of things that help a football team," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

Leonhard was signed by Baltimore this spring after trying out for the team prior to the draft.

A former Wisconsin standout, Leonhard was picked up after the Bills declined to offer him a $927,000 restricted free agent tender.

Leonhard started six games last season in relief of injured starter Ko Simpson and recorded a career-high 51 tackles and two interceptions, but wasn't retained despite his success.

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

"It was disappointing," Leonhard said. "I felt last year I started the season really well and then I got injured. You kind of get forgotten when you get injured.

"It's just a great opportunity here. I miss a lot of the guys there, some great guys, but it's the same thing here. There's no better defense to play in than this. It's a lot of fun."

Now, Leonhard is competing with rookie draft picks Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura for a roster spot.

Considering that Leonhard started against New England with Ed Reed out with a shoulder injury and that all three safeties have been fairly impressive, especially Nakamura, it's possible that the Ravens may consider the possibility of keeping five safeties on the roster.

"I got my opportunity, and you've just got to make the most of it," Leonhard said. "The two drafted guys are going to get their looks, which is totally understandable.

For the Ladysmith, Wis., native, he's accustomed to not receiving much initial fanfare.

Leonhard walked on with the Badgers, but wound up earning a scholarship with 21 career interceptions to tie Jamar Fletcher for the most in school history.

Twice named All-Big Ten Conference and an academic All-American he was once named Wisconsin's Most Valuable Player as he led the nation with 11 interceptions. He also held the Big Ten career punt return yardage record until Michigan's Steve Breaston eclipsed his 1,347-yard mark.

Despite his accomplishments, Leonhard is routinely overlooked because of his size.

"I think everyone has to have that chip on their shoulder, no matter what it is," Leonhard said. "I just go out there and try to make plays."

Leonhard has a history of surprising people.

At Wisconsin, he won a campus slam dunk contest as he pulled of his best Spud Webb impression.

"I'd just dunk it as hard as I could because nobody expected me to be able to do it," Leonhard said. "It's a little shocking when you get a 5-8 guy up there dunking pretty hard."

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

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