Never mind the Los Angeles Chargers.
They’re fast becoming the Canadian Chargers.
Even the Calgary Chargers, if you will.
The addition of Calgarian Deane Leonard — with their seventh-round pick in the draft 10 days ago — continues to make the Bolts the prime landing spot for Canadian pigskin talents in the National Football League.
“I’m the sixth Canadian on the roster,” said Leonard, on the eve of his departure to SoCal to join fellow Canucks Ryan Hunter, a guard from North Bay, Ont.; Tevaughn Campbell, a cornerback from Toronto; Josh Palmer, a wide receiver from Brampton, Ont.; Christian Covington, a defensive end from Vancouver; and Amen Ogbongbemiga, a linebacker and the other Calgarian on the squad. “As soon as I got drafted, Amen FaceTimed me and we talked for a few minutes. It’s going to be really cool to be teammates again and share a locker room. He says that everyone loves it out there and can’t wait for me to get there.
“It’ll make a big difference to have someone there who I’m familiar with — we went to the same high school and were teammates (on the Notre Dame Pride). Going into a new stadium by myself, it’s going to help a lot.”
Yes, it’s nice to have a friend.
But the 22-year-old Leonard didn’t get this chance to become an NFL star in the secondary by relying on others.
With or without the sophomore Ogbongbemiga to lean on, the Calgarian appears to have the head and the ability to make a successful next step in professional football.
The Chargers seem to think so after making him the 236th overall draftee in the annual pick-em.
“They like my character, they like my football IQ, and obviously, you have to have the athleticism and the high measureables,” said Leonard, whose key numbers are his 6-foot height and 195-lb. weight — giving him good size to be an NFL defensive back — and a 4.39 40-yard-dash time — slotting him among the elite in terms of speed. “And they want high-character guys that want to learn and improve every day, so I think that’s what they see that in me.”
But they haven’t yet pencilled him at one position.
“Probably play inside and outside,” said Chargers GM Tom Telesco. “He played Canadian college football for three years then two years at Mississippi. Ran fast, is quick … he has some cover ability. There will be some good competition in that backfield.”
“They definitely have a plan for me,” added Leonard. “I’m naturally an outside corner. But one thing that’s been important going through this process is being versatile. I’ve shown I can play inside as well. Wherever they need me, I’ll be ready to do it.”
After all, the former University of Calgary Dinos standout has cut his teeth by playing in arguably the best football outside of the NFL the last two years while with the NCAA’s Mississippi Rebels, a Southeastern Conference stronghold.
“Playing in the SEC is different, so just having that experience is the best experience you can get before you get to the NFL,” said Leonard, who left the Dinos when U SPORTS cancelled its 2020 football season due to COVID and signed on at Ole Miss. “Once I got the offer in the SEC, I wanted to go play against the best competition you can. Just going down there, there was a lot of growing pains, but it was all for the best. It made me a better player. I had to become not only pick up the speed of the game physically but become a student of the game.
“I think that will help me tremendously going on to the next level now. So when I get a new playbook in front of me, it’ll be more familiar for me and I’ll be able to learn it faster. Every rookie is going to have growing pains. But at least I’ll have recent experience going through that. It was really beneficial.”
So much so that he had a handful of NFL teams thinking about drafting him.
Among those in the buzz were the Chargers, the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, who had him ranked as high as the fourth round.
“I thought I was going to Green Bay, for sure,” said Leonard, a two time all-Canadian with the Dinos who was also selected 18th overall by the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the 2021 CFL Draft. “The Packers had me the highest rated of all teams, and I heard from my agent (Greg Brookey) that they showed a lot of interest in me.
“The draft was really exciting, but it was really stressful, too, just kind of not knowing what was going to happen,” continued Leonard. “On Saturday, specifically, I was a nervous wreck, so I was relieved to finally hear my name and was so excited. I’m just happy to have a home. They have a great organization over there. All my conversations with them have been really great. I feel welcome there, and I feel like they believe in me.”
He leaves Wednesday for Costa, Mesa, Calif., where he’ll take on Chargers’ rookie mini-camp Friday and Saturday in trying to turn what has been a stellar college career — Leonard appeared in 23 games for Calgary, recording 47 tackles, one tackle for loss, a single sack, and six interceptions, before playing in 19 games with Ole Miss, racking up 62 tackles, one tackle for loss and 11 pass breakups — into a pro opportunity.
“It’s going to be great, and I’m really excited to get out there,” added Leonard, whose dad, Kenton, played defensive back from 1991-97 with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders. “But I’m a process-oriented guy. So being drafted is a huge accomplishment, but it’s just another step that I’m thankful to go through. The work is still ahead of me. I’m just focused on the process. OK, it’s great I got drafted, but it’s time to make the roster. And once I make the roster, I have to perform on game day. So I’m focused on what’s ahead of me.
“I really appreciate the last few years and everything I’ve been through, but there’s still a lot more work to be done.”