Leonard hoping athleticism overcomes baggage

Rookie tight end AC Leonard put on quite a Combine performance but still went undrafted. An incident in college could still be costing him, but he says he’s matured and moved on.

The athleticism is undeniable for undrafted rookie tight end AC Leonard.

He was not only the fastest tight end at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but his 4.5-second running of the 40-yard dash was the fourth-best by a tight end at the Combine in the last decade, bettered only by Vernon Davis, Dorin Dickerson and James Hanna. Leonard also had the best broad jump (10-foot-8) of his position in 2014.

His performance took the scouts by surprise.

“Yeah, I did, because a lot of people said before that I would run a 4.7, 4.8. So coming out and running a 4.4 or a 4.5, it turned a lot of heads,” he said.

“It was a 4.43 unofficially, a 4.50 officially.”

So how could a tight end running that fast that had offers from Florida, Alabama, Miami, Nebraska, Central Florida and Florida International coming out of high school go undrafted? Just as his athleticism is unmistakable, his troubles in college were undeniable, causing him to transfer from his chosen Florida to Tennessee State after just one season.

He appeared in nine games for Florida, starting four, and was the only true freshman to catch a pass for the Gators in 2011, ending his first season with eight catches for 99 yards.

But then, the troubles began.

He was suspended for the 2012 spring camp after being arrested on a simple domestic battery charge after Gainesville police said he got into an argument with his girlfriend at the time. The police report said Leonard shoved her to the ground, causing her to hit her head on a dog cage. Police also said he dragged the woman out of the apartment after she asked him to leave.

Asked about that incident last month, Leonard said he has “grown up” and is no longer with that woman, but that incident has had a lasting effect on him.

NFL teams naturally asked him about the incident as they considered his value entering the league.

“They just want to see was it behind me. Am I still going to be a problem if they draft me or pick me up? They just wanted to know if I’ve changed, if I’ve grown up,” he said. “I’ve grown up.

“I’ve matured and I understand there are a lot of things I can’t do. I’ve just got to be a great person on and off the field now and continue to be a great role model.”

Florida coach Will Muschamp eventually permanently suspended Leonard from the Gators, and Leonard transferred to Tennessee State.

He started eight games during his first season at Tennessee State, finishing second on the team with a career-high 51 receptions for 733 yards and six touchdowns. Last year, he was limited by a groin injury, but started six of 12 games and finished second on the team with 34 catches for 441 yards and five touchdowns.

He earned All-American honors for the second straight year, but he announced after his junior season that he was declaring himself eligible for the NFL draft. When he wasn’t drafted, he was left to wonder how different things might have been without the incident at Florida.

“I do. I think about it sometimes, but it’s over with now. I’m here. I’m a Minnesota Viking so I just let the past be the past and focus on today,” he said. “… I feel like God does everything for a reason. God put me here for a reason so now I’ve just got to work and make the best of it.”

The Vikings offered him a chance with a $2,500 signing bonus, which was fairly typical among their low-level undrafted players. If he had been drafted in the seventh round, his signing bonus likely would have been north of $60,000. A sixth-round selection would have yielded him nearly double that.

Now, however, he is left to deal with the reality of his situation. With Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator and a tight end group that beyond Kyle Rudolph is largely void of proven pass-catchers, Leonard could be in a good position to overcome the odds of being undrafted and make the team.

Asked what he sees from Turner’s offense, his reaction told it all.

“Sheez, I see that he loves using the tight ends,” Leonard said.

“I feel like the more I show him I can do, the more opportunities that I have, so I’m just going to keep working and do whatever I can to help the team.”

Leonard said his offenses at Florida and Tennessee State will help him transition to the NFL. The scheme might not be exactly the same, but the concepts will carry over.

His speed married to Turner’s propensity to have high-yielding tight ends in the passing game can’t hurt.

“My speed is going to help me,” he said. “My route-running and just my athleticism all-around – special teams, on offense, just being able to help wherever I can.”

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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