JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Adam Leonard feels the strength in his knee is back after a high school injury. He is set to start at Mac linebacker for UH.
UH linebacker Leonard makes sizable strides
As Adam Leonard gradually built strength -- and trust -- in his surgically repaired knee, a skill highly valued in a linebacker was among the slowest to return.
"Change of direction was the most difficult for me, as far as planting and getting off that leg," Leonard said.
Close to two years after a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament and the meniscus in his right knee changed the direction of his football career, the Hawaii sophomore finally feels back up to speed.
"Now it's like nothing's wrong," he said as the Warriors left the field following a grueling fall-camp workout. "If I need to get somewhere, I can get there and it just feels great."
Leonard appeared to have a route to a Division I program all mapped out in the fall of 2004, but was forced to alter course when the injury ended his senior season at Seattle's Rainier Beach High School.
He returned to action late in his freshman year at UH, recording nine tackles, but still couldn't perform at his previous level. After a spring and summer devoted to enhancing his strength and speed, Leonard finally feels like his old self.
At 6-foot and 236 pounds, he tops the depth chart at Mac (inside) linebacker and is slated to start alongside fellow sophomore Solomon Elimimian in UH's 3-4 alignment, bearing little resemblance to the player who arrived on campus a year ago.
"He looks like a different player," UH head coach June Jones said. "He looks like the player we thought we recruited. I can see why now USC and Tennessee, and all those guys recruited him before he hurt his knee.
"I told him last year, it's going to be a year before you get over that type of knee injury. ... That's what's happened. He's had a year, he's played one season, now it's 100 percent, and he's playing like he did (in high school)."
Leonard's blend of physical gifts had him on track to earn a scholarship with a high-profile program entering his senior season at Rainier Beach.
But when his ACL gave way early in the season, the offers went with it.
"All the schools that were recruiting me before basically dropped me," he said. "Cal tried to talk me into going to junior college, Duke tried to talk me into going to military school. I knew in my heart that shouldn't be the route I should have to go. I was academically eligible and I had the ability, so I wanted to find a D-I (school) and thankfully the Lord put it on (Jones') heart to say, 'I'm going to take a chance on him.'"
A tape of Leonard's high school highlights found its way to Jones' office and convinced the coach to fly him over for a recruiting visit.
"Speed and acceleration to the football," Jones said, recalling the skills that leapt off the screen. "He just finds the football and he's a hitter."
Leonard spent most of his first year with the Warriors working back into football shape and progressed enough to contribute on special teams and at linebacker late in the season.
Following a freshman year of on-the-job training, both Leonard and Elimimian returned to Manoa confident and comfortable with the system as they aim to help the Warriors improve on a 2005 season in which the defense ranked 102nd in the country in yards surrendered.
"Last year it was kind of new to everybody -- we were learning as we went," said Elimimian, who finished second on the team with 83 tackles last fall. "This year it's more comfortable, everybody knows where to go, what to do. We're just out there having fun."
Said Leonard: "You don't think about it, you feel where the other guy is at. You trust that he's going to be there, he's got your back. It's easier to fly around and make plays because if I make a mistake I know Sol will be right there. If he makes a mistake, I'll be right there. It makes it real easy to go out there and just relax."
With Brad Kalilimoku, a starter at linebacker last season, moving to safety in the spring, Leonard was elevated to the top line of the depth chart.
To prepare for his opportunity, Leonard sought the help of former NFL star Eric Metcalf in the offseason and convinced Elimimian to join him in Seattle.
Metcalf, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, is a regular on the track at Rainier Beach and picked up a couple of workout partners over the summer.
"When I got out of school I let him know, 'E, I see you working out every day, I'm ready to get down,' " Leonard said. "He said, 'Just get here at 9 every morning.'
"I told Sol, I said Eric's going to help us out a lot. And he said, 'I'm willing to sacrifice and get up to Seattle for the summer,' and that's what he did."
Throughout his journey, Leonard's faith helped him through the rough spots, and he's part of a prayer group organized by team manager Bryan Maneafaiga, which meets on the field after each practice.
And having navigated his way through the unexpected turn, Leonard said he feels blessed to have found his way to the islands.
"It all collapsed on one play," he said of his initial post-high school plans. "It was hard, but I stuck through it and I knew something good would turn out, and it was Hawaii."