INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – At the halfway point of the NFL season, Darius Leonard, Quenton Nelson and a few others could be excused for wondering why it isn’t about over.
During four prolific seasons at South Carolina State, Leonard never played more than 11 games. Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, he’ll step on the field for his 11th game with the Indianapolis Colts – eight in the regular season after three in the preseason.
At Notre Dame, Nelson was a fixture on the offensive line with 37 appearances and 36 starts. His busiest season was his final one, with 13 starts. Sunday, he’ll make his 12th start for his new employers. He’s the only Colt to be on the field for every snap this season: 588 of 588.
“It’s one game at a time,’’ he said Thursday. “Just focusing on each opponent every week. Feelin’ good.
“Just through the preparation each week of getting your body ready to go, studying your opponent and focusing on the game plan and the task at hand. That’s what gets me through each week.’’
Leonard was similarly dismissive of an NFL regimen that’s more physically demanding than anything he dealt with at South Carolina State.
“It’s a different mindset now,’’ he said. “In college you know you’ve got a 10-game schedule. Now I know it’s 16.
“I have a longer mindset. I’m not in college anymore. This is the NFL.’’
Leonard’s name is included whenever the discussion turns to Defensive Rookie of the Year; the only Colts to earn the honor were Duane Bickett in 1985 and Vernon Maxwell in ’83. Despite missing one game with an ankle injury, he leads the NFL in total tackles (88) and solo tackles (58), and added 4 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.
Leonard has been a defensive constant. He’s been on the field for 98.9 percent of the snaps (469 of 474) in his seven starts.
Credit Leonard’s immediate impact and availability on that adjusted mindset.
“At first I was feeling it,’’ he said of the rigors of the NFL. “But I talked to the vets about how to take care of my body and I started doing all the small things before games and before practice and I feel good now.
“I’m just staying consistent with my daily routine. Just hot tub, cold tub, getting massages twice a week.’’
The objective, he added, is “just taking care of the small muscles.
“My body is my temple. I’ve got to take care of it.’’
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus hasn’t noticed a decline in Leonard’s performance. In fact, there was a discernible bounce in Leonard’s step when the Colts returned to practice this week after using their bye week to refresh.
“I think you do worry with certain players,’’ Eberflus said. “I don’t really worry about that with Darius. He’s very mature for his age. I think the bye week came at the right spot – right in the middle – so there’s kind of a refresh and reload and reset mentality here in the building and certainly with him.
“His practice Monday was as fast as I’ve seen it. Same with Wednesday. He was as fast and as instinctive as I’ve seen him so far this season.’’
Nelson has been the starting left guard since April 26 when Chris Ballard used the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft on the Notre Dame All-American. He has matched the hype and was selected the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for October, the first guard to be cited.
Nelson has been the same day after day after day.
“I haven’t seen him slow down at all,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “That’s one of the great things about Quenton. He’s the same guy every day. That’s something we look for in players. You don’t want the guys that are up and then down, then up and then down.
“Q gives you that steadiness. I’ve seen that and I haven’t seen him wear down.’’
Leonard insisted avoiding the so-called “rookie wall’’ is more mental than it is physical.
“I hope I don’t reach that rookie wall, but I don’t think I will,’’ he said. “My thing is mentally if I love something as much as I love football, I will do whatever I can to keep playing.
“Yeah, that’s the plan. Growing up, man, I worked every day. I worked hard every day. I never took a day off. I ran to practice when I didn’t have a ride. I do everything I can to be ready for a game. I’m going to keep doing that.’’