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Duke quarterback Riley Leonard's success fueled by preseason doubt, 'blatant disrespect'

The Herald-Sun (Durham, NC) logo The Herald-Sun (Durham, NC) 3 days ago Steve Wiseman, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

Nov. 23—DURHAM — Before the 2022 college football season began, the prevailing perception was that Duke quarterback Riley Leonard was at the bottom of the ACC pecking order.

Leonard's response?

"Love it," the sophomore quarterback said.

He's played with an edge — fueled by what he calls "blatant disrespect" to him and the Blue Devils — all season.

That approach led to success, for him personally and the team as a whole as the Blue Devils (7-4, 4-3 ACC) are heading to a bowl game for the first time since 2018.

At the same time, Leonard said he knows why the preseason perception of his play and the team's chances was so dour.

Duke lost, 48-17, at Virginia Tech last November in the only college game Leonard started prior to this season. That was part of a 13-game ACC losing streak the Blue Devils carried into this season.

"I mean, I understand the ratings," Leonard said. "I did only start one game last year. And I did, you know, play pretty bad. So I understand where they're coming from."

So while N.C. State's Devin Leary, Wake Forest's Sam Hartman, Miami's Tyler Van Dyke and Virginia's Brennan Armstrong were considered the class of the ACC quarterbacks entering this season, and North Carolina's Drake Maye moved to the top of the list with his outstanding freshman season, Leonard steadily put together a season that puts him in that conversation, as well.

As Duke enters its regular-season finale against Hartman and Wake Forest on Saturday, Leonard is No. 5 in the ACC in passing yards (2,403) while completing 62.5% of his throws. He's thrown for 16 touchdowns against only five interceptions.

His dual-threat game, though, is what makes him special. Leonard leads all ACC quarterbacks with 621 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Only LSU's Jayden Daniels (740) has more rushing yards among quarterbacks in Power Five conferences.

Clearly, he's far from the worst quarterback in the ACC. But, please, both he and Duke coach Mike Elko said half-jokingly, keep hate coming.

This Saturday, Hartman (with 32 touchdowns and 3,074 passing yards this season) will be slinging the ball against Duke. Given how proficient Wake's offense has been, Leonard figures to have to be productive to keep Duke in the game.

So how will Elko approach that subject with Leonard?

"I'm gonna do what I've done every other week and let you guys take care of it," Elko, with a sly grin, said during a news conference on Monday. "So I'm sure you guys will write the stories. You'll continue to write them the same way like you have all year and Riley will go out on the field Saturday with a real big chip on his shoulder and it'll be a lot of fun."

Leonard's evolution

How did Leonard get to this point? How did a high school basketball standout with no Power Five football offers become an ACC starting quarterback leading his team to a winning season?

As with many things of late, the pandemic played a role when in-person sports halted in 2020.

"I didn't really get recruited," Leonard said. "I never took a visit anywhere. I never took any unofficials or officials. I never went to any junior days. So the whole process was very strange to me."

Following his junior year at Fairhope High School near Mobile, Alabama, Leonard was supposed to play on the EYBL Nike grassroots basketball circuit with Alabama Fusion.

"I was hoping to get some scholarships playing basketball," Leonard said.

COVID caused that to be canceled, and changed everything.

A decorated player with all-state and all-conference honors in football and basketball, Leonard had received football scholarship offers from nearby schools South Alabama and Southern Mississippi. One of Leonard's highlight videos found its way to David Cutcliffe, though, and the Duke coach offered Leonard for the class of 2021.

Duke comes through

During Leonard's freshman season last year, Gunnar Holmberg was Duke's starting quarterback and the Blue Devils struggled. Leonard played in seven games, completing 37 of 62 passes (59.7%) for 381 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

In his lone start at Virginia Tech, Leonard completed 7 of 16 passes for 84 yards in a lopsided loss.

Following Duke's 3-9 season with an 0-8 ACC mark, Cutcliffe and his staff departed, and Duke hired Elko.

In limbo like his teammates, Leonard could have joined some of them — like Holmberg, Jake Bobo, Gary Smith and Lummie Young — in transferring to other Division I schools to play this season.

Leonard never considered it.

"I picked Duke because I know every day when I walk into the locker room," he said, "I'm gonna have the best people in the entire country with me. Regardless of the coaching staff for the school, the guys that Duke recruits are one of a kind. So how could I leave them after going through the year we had with them? And the new coaching staff and my opportunity to be the starting quarterback? I'd never want to leave those guys. They're my brothers. I'm hoping to have lifelong relationships with them."

A new approach

The new staff meant Kevin Johns would be coaching Leonard as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Elko instilled a different approach with his staff that the returning players embraced.

That's why Leonard, even though the staff didn't decide on him being starting quarterback until August, was confident success would come his and the Blue Devils' way.

"They walked me through spring ball whenever it was my first time really getting those starting reps," Leonard said. "So going into the season, by the time all the critics come out and all these newspapers about me come out, we're way ahead of them. I have full confidence in my teammates."

He's progressed a long way in a short time, just as Duke has done. Where they routinely lost games by 30-35 points a season ago, the Blue Devils' four losses this season are by 16 points combined.

Duke has proven it will fight to the end no matter the circumstances. That resilience stems from its quarterback.

"Riley is going to compete," Elko said. "That's what he does. He's shown that every week."

(c)2022 The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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