SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Riley Leonard didn’t bound up the stairs on Friday afternoon for his first media availability as a Notre Dame quarterback, but he didn’t take the elevator to the second floor of the Irish Athletics Center, either. He was self-aware to note the dozen reporters who encircled his table, remembering that maybe five would show at media day at Duke. He name-checked head trainer Rob Hunt, who sparred with reporters on social media over Leonard’s surgically repaired right ankle, the same one Howard Cross rolled while sacking the quarterback last season.
Yes, Leonard had TightRope surgery to stabilize the ankle after getting it examined upon arriving at Notre Dame. The procedure’s delay was driven by optimism, mainly that Leonard hoped to not need surgery at all. Marcus Freeman was among Leonard’s first calls post-op.
No, he won’t miss any of spring practice and expects the total recovery time to be closer to four weeks than six or eight.
This first impression lasted barely 20 minutes, but it was enough to begin to understand how Leonard sees himself and his fit at Notre Dame. And that meant acknowledging this is all a little different — the attention, the pressure, the fact he had his photo snapped at Chick-fil-A this week after news broke of his surgery from two weeks earlier.
It didn’t work this way at Duke, a basketball school in a metroplex of them.
“Whenever you land in South Bend, it’s just Notre Dame football. Like, that’s the only thing,” Leonard said. “South Bend, man, I literally landed and you get off the plane and all you see is Notre Dame stuff. The second I landed, I was like, ‘Holy cow.’”
In the short-term, Leonard still has some recovery to complete from the TightRope surgery. He’s able to do some training in the weight room, but he’s not cleared to sprint. When early enrollee CJ Carr was asked who the best basketball player among the quarterbacks was, he selected freshman Kenny Minchey. That’s probably because Leonard hasn’t been able to show off his skills just yet.
Leonard knows what makes him unique and why he’s still raw. He was comfortable talking about a desire to be in the NFL already, how last season’s injury waylaid those plans and what it will be like to face Mike Elko at Texas A&M on Labor Day weekend.
“He brought a lot of the Duke coaching staff with him, who I’m obviously super close with as well. So I’m gonna have to get out to the game super early, meet everybody and go crack some jokes with them,” Leonard said. “This is gonna be a big one for both of our prides. I’m excited for that.”
Like Sam Hartman before him, Leonard arrived at Notre Dame to find a different offensive coordinator than the one who recruited him. Unlike Gerad Parker, who left to become the head coach at Troy, incoming Mike Denbrock produced a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback the season prior and the nation’s No. 1 overall offense. Leonard bumped into Parker around Birmingham, Ala., at a bowling alley in December and the two have kept up. Yet, there’s little doubt Denbrock offers a different playbook after coaching Jayden Daniels.
Notre Dame’s offense is already combing the LSU playbook from last season, without much mention of the one the Irish ran, even if Parker’s offense finished in the top 10 in scoring and yards per play. It’s just that LSU finished first in both. The Tigers averaged 8.4 yards per snap, the second-best mark in college football during the previous decade.
“Coach Denbrock coming in, he’s been incredible,” Leonard said. “Obviously, you see what he did with Jayden Daniels, so excited to see how he can evolve my game.”
Leonard was upfront that his game needs work. He didn’t need a reminder he threw just three touchdowns last season or that his accuracy isn’t a strength. But he’s also self-assured to know quarterback guru David Cutcliffe recruited him — the two have talked since Leonard’s decision to come to Notre Dame — and the quarterback knows he could have followed Elko to College Station. Cutcliffe was nearly Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator under Charlie Weis, while Elko was a one-and-done defensive coordinator for Brian Kelly.
“As far as my mindset, I would have liked to have maybe been able to enter the NFL Draft after last season,” he said. “But I’m here, and I need to approach this season like an NFL quarterback. So all the intangible things when it comes to playing the game, like how to handle yourself before the game, how to prepare. And then the tangible things on the field — obviously pocket awareness, arm strength — I know all my weaknesses, and I think those are pretty loud and clear.
“So I’m ready to attack those things and accept that challenge, and get better at all those things I’m not very good at.”
There will be time for that after Leonard returns fully from his TightRope surgery that feels more like a delay than a deterrent at Notre Dame. Because based on first impression, Leonard is already fitting in. It would be hard to joke about how his junior season was sideswiped by Notre Dame without some self-awareness, which Leonard has in bulk.
Asked about why he committed to Notre Dame, Leonard offered a sentimental love of “Rudy” and how he watched it daily back home in Alabama. He also got practical, listing the returns of of Rylie Mills, Jack Kiser, Xavier Watts, Benjamin Morrison and even Cross.
“Whenever they were recruiting me, I was like, ‘Who’s coming back on defense?’ Because I played around and they were the most high-flying, they were flying around all game,” Leonard said. “Really, really incredible players. So whenever I heard guys like Rylie Mills coming back, Howard Cross, who still owes me dinner …
Leonard paused for effect.
“I told him there’s a Ruth’s Chris, like right down the road. That was a lot of weight on my ankle.”
One month and one surgery into his Notre Dame career, though, Leonard appears capable of carrying a burden.
(Photo: Lance King / Getty Images)