NFL: Unique homecoming for ex-Bemidji State tight end Leonhardt
BEMIDJI — Brian Leonhardt’s chances of making an NFL team just got a big boost.
He just isn’t sure which coaching staff will be harder on him.
“Well, I’m not just being evaluated by the Raiders coaching staff, but I’m also going to be evaluated by my former coaches at BSU,” Leonhardt said with a laugh.
The Raiders will play their preseason opener against the Minnesota Vikings today at TCF Bank Stadium, and Leonhardt, who attended Spring Lake Park High School in Blaine, is excited to get a chance to return to his home state.
“It’s definitely big to be able to come back to Minnesota,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday from Raiders training camp in Napa, Calif. “My family hasn’t gotten to see me play live since college. It’s a unique opportunity.”
Because of an injury to David Ausberry, the No. 1 tight end on the depth chart, Leonhardt may be getting more playing time than he would otherwise. Mychal Rivera is No. 2 on the depth, but is more of a receiving tight end, whereas Leonhardt has been used more for run blocking.
“That puts me next up,” said Leonhardt, who was listed as the No. 3 tight end on the depth chart Monday before Ausberry’s surgery was announced later in the week. “That means I should get more reps and more time with the first string, so it’s good for me to get that experience.”
BSU head coach Jeff Tesch said he and a large contingent of Leonhardt’s former coaches and teammates would be making the trek to Minneapolis today, but he doesn’t expect to be judging Leonhardt too hard.
“I know his family and friends purchased about 100 tickets, and a bunch of us will all be going down to support him. But I think we’re going to be pretty biased,” Tesch joked. “He’s looked good from what we’ve seen of him, and it’s obvious that year on the practice squad helped his development a lot.”
Moving on up?
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Leonhardt was signed by the Raiders in 2013 after going undrafted out of college at BSU. While with the Beavers, he was a four-time All-NSIC selection and a Division II All-America selection his junior and senior years. He finished his career as one of the top tight ends in BSU history, with 1,431 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns and 112 receptions.
The Raiders didn’t keep him on the final 53-man roster last year, but saw enough potential to keep him around on the practice squad. Taking a year of hits on the scout team did wonders for Leonhardt’s professional development.
Ausberry will be out for an unspecified amount of time. That gives Leonhardt a perfect opportunity to make an impact.
Oakland head coach Dennis Allen said in a news conference Monday that Leonhardt has “steadily improved” since the last season. On Wednesday, he reiterated that Leonhardt would play a more prominent role in the preseason in Ausberry’s absence.
“I think that’s why we play these games, to get an opportunity to look at those young players and see what happens when the lights come on,” Allen said in a transcript provided by Raiders.com.
In the 2013 preseason, Leonhardt was used primarily as a blocking tight end in run schemes.
“I’ve been trying to find my game, and I think I’ve been able to,” he said. “I think the biggest thing I’ve improved on since last season is my footwork in the run game.”
Should Leonhardt make the team, he would be the first BSU player on an NFL roster in Tesch’s 19-year coaching tenure.
“This is the first time we’ve had a guy in this position, with a real chance to make an NFL team,” Tesch said. “He’s worked so hard and dedicated so much to making the NFL. Now he has this opportunity with a good chance to get some playing time and he’s taking advantage of it.”
“Making the team would be huge. It would be a big accomplishment, especially considering where I started,” Leonhardt said.
“But really the ultimate goal isn’t just to make the team. The goal is being an impact player and help the team win games. I think I can do that, but I have more work to do.”