OXFORD, Miss. — Canada has always exported goods across the border to its southern neighbor. Among the many things The Great White North has given us are Wayne Gretzky, precious metals and some really good beer.
The folks up north also recently sent some very talented defensive football players all the way to Mississippi, as defensive back Deane Leonard and outside linebacker Tavius Robinson arrived in Oxford to join the Landsharks this season.
“We’re rooming together,” Leonard said of his fellow countryman in a recent press conference. “I feel like the experience is kind of thrown off with COVID; you don’t get out into The Square and everything as much as you want to, but the football’s been great and I’m taking it all in. It’s nice having another guy in a similar situation. I think even past football, coming to Mississippi there’s a bit of a cultural difference, and having another Canadian guy here is big.”
Leonard made a name for himself at the University of Calgary, and his DB coach there, Marcello Rapini, has no doubt his former player will succeed in the SEC.
“I’m willing to bet every week if you watch him, he’ll get better — big strides every week,” Rapini told the Calgary Sun. “He will compete, and he won’t look out of place. And it’s a whole different animal there in the SEC.”
Leonard and Robinson are quickly making their presence known. Robinson has shown up big on the field so far this season, as the Guelph, Ontario native has five tackles in his first two games, two of them solo stops. Leonard, a Calgary, Alberta native, has also tallied a couple of tackles in the first two games, including a solo against Florida.
The season-opener showed Leonard the differences between Canadian and SEC football, and once he settled in, his confidence built.
“That first week (against Florida) in the first half, I think it was a learning experience for sure. I think what that game told me was I was in a position to make those plays and I can compete with them.”
Ole Miss DB Deane Leonard
“I really didn’t have experience with how athletic the guys are with speed and size,” Leonard added. “Playing against Florida, we were going against Kyle Pitts at 6-6, 240. I’ve never seen anything like that in my three years at university.”
In week two, it got a little better for the Rebels. After the opening loss to the Gators, Ole Miss picked up a 42-41 overtime win against Kentucky. Even with the win, Leonard knows the defense needs to improve and believes the Landsharks can do it.
“I think what stands out against Kentucky was our tackling.” Leonard said of what needs improvement. “I noticed our angles were off a lot just giving up contain and everything. We have to be more sound in the run game and I think we have to trust our help and trust our assignments.”
It does not get any easier for Ole Miss (1-1) this week as No. 2 Alabama comes to town Saturday. Although he has not seen a lot of the Crimson Tide, Leonard knows what to expect.
“They’re like a track team back there. They are fast. they are agile, they can really do it all.”
Deane Leonard on Alabama
And Alabama (2-0) has a talented Canadian of its own. Brampton, Ontario product John Metchie III burst upon the scene last week. Against Texas A&M, Metchie caught five passes for 181 yards with a pair of touchdowns. One score was from 78 yards, the other from 63.
But Leonard likes the matchup. “I think it will be really cool two guys from Canada doing it on the big stage,” he said.
After getting his feet wet in the SEC, Leonard knows there is still work to be done, but does see improvement in his game already. “I still think I have a long way to go, I just need to get a feel for a game,” he said. ”Everything’s a little bit different, the splits are tighter, this is really my first month playing press (coverage). It’s a big learning curve and I feel like I am on the uprising of it.”
As for his learning curve, there’s little doubt Leonard’s proficiency will increase more and more with increased experience. His talent is unquestioned. As Todd Saelhof of the Calgary Sun writes:
“Leonard joined the (University of Calgary) Dinos at 17, straight out of Notre Dame High school, and established himself as a can’t-miss-kid in the secondary. In 23 regular-season games, he had 47 tackles, six interceptions, one sack, two forced fumbles and 19 pass deflections. He was named a unanimous U Sports first-team all-Canadian in both 2018 and ’19 and an all-academic all-Canadian last year and, of course, was a vital member of U of C’s Vanier Cup championship squad 11 months ago.”
As for what the Ole Miss secondary needs to do as a unit, Leonard feels it is all fixable if the Rebels just execute and focus on their assignments.
Deane Leonard on what secondary can do: "What stands out against Kentucky is tackling, our angles were off. We have to trust our help and trust our assignments."
— The Rebel Walk (@TheRebelWalk) October 5, 2020
Look for Leonard to make his impact felt in Oxford!
The Rebels and Alabama kick off at 5 p.m. at Vaught-Hemingway, and the game will be televised on ESPN.