It wasn't long, though, before the Ladysmith, Wis., native and future Baltimore Ravens safety was an All-Big Ten Conference selection and academic All-American on a full scholarship who intercepted 21 career passes and led the nation one year with 11 interceptions.
"I'm from a real small town in the middle of nowhere," said Leonhard of his hometown of 3,932 in Rusk County, Wis., 49 miles from Eau Claire and 103 miles east of St. Paul, Minn. "There's not a whole lot of recruiting up there, so it's a tough thing. Obviously, it worked out pretty well for me."
Leonhard joined the Ravens with practically zero fanfare this spring after the Buffalo Bills declined to offer him a $927,000 restricted free agent tender during the offseason.
Now, that transaction is looking like a prescient move for Baltimore in the wake of strong safety Dawan Landry suffering a spinal cord concussion that has thrust Leonhard into the starting lineup for at least the next few games.
In relief of Landry and return specialist Yamon Figurs, Leonhard contributed two 30-yard kickoff returns, a 21-yard punt return as well as a sack, quarterback hurry and a pass deflection.
"I was a little bit nervous," said Leonhard, who knocked quarterback Derek Anderson for a seven-yard loss on a safety blitz.. "Coming in here, I thought I had an opportunity to help this team. I think I still have a lot to do."
At an unimposing 5-foot-8, 186 pounds, Leonhard looks much younger than his 25 years. He makes up for his lack of ideal size with toughness, instincts and athleticism.
Leonhard won the campus slam dunk contest twice at Wisconsin, bounding into the air to rattle the rim with power slams.
"I'm confident in him," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "He's a great athlete. He just doesn't look the part. He looks like your neighbor, but he can play."
Despite the reality that he'll probably be asked for identification in bars for several more years, Leonhard likes flying under the radar.
Underestimated by recruiters, scouts and wide receivers, Leonhard embraces the underdog mentality.
"I know I look really young, so that's nothing new for me," Leonhard said. "I get that a lot. I'm not a real imposing guy, but I go out there and play hard. I just love to compete and play football."
The Ravens have been aware of Leonhard for a long time. They scouted him at Wisconsin, noting his leaping ability, intelligence and willingness to tackle.
The Ravens lined him up at nose guard for a preseason snap against the New England Patriots and are comfortable enough with his coverage ability and speed that he could work as an emergency nickel back if needed.
"The Ravens were actually one of the teams that was really interested in me coming out of college," said Leonhard, who signed with the Bills as a rookie after going undrafted. "I'm not exactly sure how it worked out, but they've got great scouts and coaches here."
Leonhard proved last season in Buffalo what he could do when an opportunity arises.
He started six games last year because of an injury to starter Ko Simpson, recording a career-high 51 tackles and two interceptions.
In his first start last September, Leonhard registered a career-high 13 tackles and his first NFL interception against the Denver Broncos.
However, Leonhard underwent surgery in January to repair a painful bone spur in his hip. He also dealt with a torn calf muscle last season, prompting the Bills to not retain him.
The Ravens are extremely happy with their relatively small investment of a veteran minimum contract in Leonhard, playing him opposite Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed ahead of rookie draft picks Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura.
"Jim is a good football player," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "The interesting thing about Jim is that sometimes guys get stereotyped. He's a solid football player. You say, ‘Well, he can't make plays.'
"He makes plays all over the field. He's been a pleasant surprise. We thought he was going to be a good player, but he's probably been better than we anticipated."
Landry's scary injury gave Leonhard pause, but he didn't slow down when he got into the game while thinking of his fallen teammate.
"Your heart goes out to Dawan," Leonhard said. "He's a great guy and a great teammate. We went through something terrible in Buffalo last year with Kevin Everett, and you just try to balance being concerned and focused on the game. You just have to stay ready."
Leonhard is enjoying being a part of Ryan's free-wheeling, aggressive scheme as the undefeated Ravens (2-0)pre pare for Monday night's pivotal AFC North encounter against the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) at Heinz Field.
"I like the fact that it's so active," Leonhard said. "I love that you get a chance to go after people. There's a lot of talent here, and I'm just happy to be a part of this."
NOTES: The Ravens tried out former Oakland Raiders tight end John Madsen. He has 19 career receptions for 248 yards and two touchdowns. … Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo organized a voter registration drive through Rock the Vote, registering 20 teammates to vote.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
Leonhard on the spot for Ravens
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