Rams’ draft pick off to strong start

Running back from Rutgers is making a good first impression with versatility and hustle
Thursday, August 2, 2007 | 12:42 a.m. CDT; updated 1:22 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
St. Louis Rams fan Kyle Elmendorf, of St. Charles, wears an extravagant hat as he watches his team practice.

ST. LOUIS — If St. Louis rookie running back Brian Leonard ever needs a favor, he knows where to turn.

While finishing a stellar college career at Rutgers University, Leonard became acquainted with actor James Gandolfini, a Rutgers graduate who attends three or four games a year.

“I saw him a bunch of times,” Leonard said. “He even came out to our (dormitory) and said hello. He’s really into Rutgers football.”

Gandolfini, better known for his role as Tony Soprano, may soon be into St. Louis Rams football, as well.

Leonard, the Rams’ second-round draft choice this spring, has been impressive during the first week of training camp. He sparkled as a member of the second team during a workout Wednesday afternoon, so much so that he was promoted to the first team for several plays during 11-on-11 drills.

Leonard’s hustle and intensity have caught the eye of coach Scott Linehan, who considers him a jack-of-all trades.

The 6-foot-1, 226-pound Leonard ran for 2,779 yards and caught 207 passes in his four years at Rutgers. He is considered a solid blocker and Linehan has used him on special teams in practice. Listed as the No. 2 fullback and No. 2 running back on the current depth chart, Leonard will likely see plenty of action in preseason play.

“He wears a lot of hats and he wears them well,” Linehan said. “He can run the ball downhill, he can block, he’s a great pass protector on third down, and he has excellent hands.”

Leonard, the 52nd overall pick in the NFL draft, knows it is his versatility that will get him time on the field. With Steven Jackson entrenched as the No. 1 running back and Madison Hedgecock holding down the fullback spot, Leonard could play a key role spelling both regulars.

“I can do a little bit of everything,” Leonard said. “I think the coaches are seeing that.”

Leonard shrugged and said it doesn’t matter when asked which position he would prefer to play.

“Honestly, I just want to get out on the field,” he said. “Fullback or running back, I’ll be happy at either.”

Leonard made a diving catch Wednesday and broke a 15-yard run up the middle during drills.

So far he has adapted well to the speed of the NFL game. He says he has received a lot of help from Jackson, who has been serving as a mentor.

“Steven has always been there for me,” Leonard said. “I’m always learning things.”

Leonard exploded onto the college scene in 2003, when he was named Big East Conference Freshman of The Year after leading the Scarlet Knights with 880 yards rushing. He was moved to the more traditional fullback role by his senior season and helped in the resurgence of the Rutgers program.

Now, Leonard feels he is ready to make an impact at a higher level.

“All he needs right now is experience and that will come,” Linehan said. “(So far) he’s been outstanding.”

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