Duke quarterback Riley Leonard was one of the highest-profile players to enter the NCAA transfer portal. That’s led to strong speculation indicating that Notre Dame would be his ultimate destination. On Tuesday, Riley made it official, marking the second straight year that the Irish have corralled a veteran ACC signal-caller.
Leonard’s departure wasn’t a big surprise in the wake of Blue Devils’ head coach Mike Elko leaving for Texas A&M. The task of adapting to a new coaching staff isn’t foreign to him. During his high school days, it was then-Blue Devils’ head coach David Cutcliffe who successfully recruited him.
Below is a look at Leonard’s background:
The Original Recruiting Process
A native of Fairhope, Alabama, Leonard showed off his athletic ability in both football and basketball and earned all-state accolades in both. Originally, basketball seemed more likely to be in Leonard’s future. However, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic played a key role in pointing him toward football.
Leonard was not considered a top prospect by most Power Five programs during the recruiting period. Instead, schools such as Southern Mississippi and South Alabama pursued him, with Mississippi later joining in. Ultimately, Cutcliffe’s persuasion helped get him to the Duke campus.
A First Season to Forget
Duke won three of 12 contests in 2021 and dropped all eight ACC clashes. Leonard was a reserve quarterback but still managed to see action in seven contests, completing 37 of 62 passes for 381 yards. One touchdown pass was countered by a single interception.
Leonard’s lone start in 2021 came in a 48-17 loss to Virginia Tech. He finished with seven completions on 16 pass attempts for just 84 yards. One week later, he came off the bench to complete all 13 passes and ran for a 35-yard score in a 62-22 thrashing by Louisville.
Cutcliffe was pushed out after that 2021 campaign and was replaced by Elko, who had spent the past four seasons as defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Before that, Elko had spent the 2017 season at Notre Dame in that same capacity with the Irish.
Leonard had the opportunity to transfer at that point but rejected the prospect. For one thing, a fresh start under a new coach offered the opportunity to make an impact, something he accomplished during his 2022 season.
Making a Name for Himself
Entering that 2022 campaign, Leonard was considered an afterthought among ACC quarterbacks by most observers, a slight he used as motivation throughout the year. When the season had ended, Leonard had led the Blue Devils to a 9-4 record and a 30-13 win in the Military Bowl over UCF. That record was achieved with a strong run to end the season, with Duke winning five of its last six contests.
In his 13 games, Leonard completed 250 of 392 passes for 2,967 yards and threw for 20 touchdowns with just six interceptions. He delivered his top performance by outdueling then-Wake Forest signal-caller Sam Hartman in a 34-31 win. Leonard’s touchdown pass with just 2:04 remaining served as the game-winner and completed a 391-yard passing performance that included four touchdown tosses.
Sidetracked by Injuries
This past season, injuries ruined Leonard’s chance to build on that sophomore effort. A high ankle sprain on the final play against Notre Dame caused him to miss the Blue Devils’ next game two weeks later. He returned the following week and was in a position to deliver an upset at Florida State before he reinjured the ankle.
Against Louisville the following week, Leonard’s season came to an end after he suffered a turf toe injury that required surgery. The disappointing year saw him finish with 95 completions on 165 pass attempts, with three touchdown passes matched by a trio of pickoffs.
What Would Notre Dame Get?
When healthy, Leonard has shown the ability to produce and also provides a valuable option as a dangerous runner. In the latter capacity, he gained 699 yards in 2022 and 352 this year and has a career average of 5.3 yards per carry. The Irish were witness to his mobility when he gained 88 yards on the ground during their matchup.
During the past two seasons at Duke, the Blue Devils’ front line did a solid job of protecting Leonard and the team’s other quarterbacks. Notre Dame’s front line is losing some key personnel but again figures to have the talent available to keep Leonard upright. Aiding that cause would be the signal-caller’s legs that can offer new options to the Irish offense.
The Bottom Line
Until Leonard makes an announcement, Steve Angeli is the presumptive successor to Hartman next season. Considering that Leonard has only one more season of eligibility remaining, Marcus Freeman and his staff don’t figure to bring him aboard as a reserve. Whether or not Leonard could break the rut of near-misses and costly losses is a question that won’t be answered until he takes the field next season.