Leonard has new name, no timetable for return

·4 min read

Jul. 26—WESTFIELD — Perhaps the biggest storyline coming out move-in day for the Indianapolis Colts on Tuesday centered around what to call No. 53.

The All-Pro linebacker formerly known as Darius Leonard requested a different moniker as training camp opened at Grand Park. He'd like to go by his middle name, Shaquille, moving forward.

"That's the storyline of camp or whatever," fellow linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "I guess that's better than last year. I did know he goes by Shaquille. He told me that my rookie year, but I call him D Leonard. I just don't call him Darius. He don't really care for that."

Leonard apparently has been known as "Shaq" within the Indiana Farm Bureau Football since he entered the league, but he'd never before made the correction publicly.

So it's a fresh start in Year 5 for the three-time Pro Bowler.

"I went by Shaquille my whole life," Leonard said. "My mom called me Shaquille. My family called me Shaquille. My friends and family called me Shaquille. I never went by Darius — only if I was in school or if I was in trouble.

"Once I got into the NFL, that's when people started calling me Darius. I hate it, but coming in as a rookie I figured just go with it. ... But I love being called Shaquille, hate being called Darius. I understand it's going to be hard, but I would love if y'all would try and call me Shaquille or D or Maniac and not Darius."

Whichever name he goes by, the focus now is on Leonard's return to the field.

After struggling with a perceived ankle injury throughout last season, Leonard underwent back surgery last month to repair two discs that had been pressing on a nerve and sending pain all the way down his left leg.

The surgery was successful, and Leonard already is feeling much better. But he has no public timetable for a return to the field.

Head coach Frank Reich said in June the hope is to have the linebacker ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener at Houston. But Leonard isn't committing to any specific dates.

"I'm not putting a timeline on it," Leonard said. "I think the way I'm going now — I'm very happy with the way we're going, and I'm just gonna take it day by day and hope for the best and get ready to rock and roll whenever the opportunity comes and hit the field running."

E.J. Speed likely will get the starting reps on the weak side while Leonard is out.

The 27-year-old made his first career start in place of Leonard on Christmas night against the Arizona Cardinals and finished with nine tackles and a pass deflection. He has 47 tackles and one forced fumble in 44 games over three NFL seasons, primarily making an impact on special teams.

If Leonard misses time during the regular season, there will be an adjustment for the entire defense.

"Obviously, Darius is our emotional leader," Franklin said. "He's the leader of our defense. Obviously we go as he goes, so not having him out there always has an effect. ... First off, for us, really just want him to be 100%. So him being 100%, getting the best version of D Leonard, is the best thing that could happen for our whole team.

"So for me, personally, that's just kind of where I'm at with it. And then just knowing he's not there, I think for most guys, just understand we all have to raise our level of play. We all have to go harder, have to do more, because without D Leonard on the field, that's a lot of plays not being made. So somebody's gotta make the plays."

The defense has been practicing without Leonard throughout the spring.

It took awhile to discover the back was the source of his ankle pain, and he sat out of workouts prior to the surgery while that diagnosis was completed.

That means Leonard has yet to step on the field in new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's scheme. But he's not worried about falling too far behind and needing to race to catch up upon his return.

"It's football," Leonard said. "Playing defense, we all run the same schemes. It's just maybe one defensive coordinator runs a base coverage more than others. It's the same thing. I just think in the position they've got me playing and the way that I look at the tape, study the tape and watch the guys that's playing that position, I'm just ready to fill that void and be that leader on defense to come in and try to make as many plays as I possibly can and make them as many times as I can."