In the coaching business, the right people can send the right message with just a few words.
That’s what happened in the fall of 2008 when then-Georgia defensive ends coach Jon Fabris was out on a Friday night to take a look at a player from Jefferson County (Ga.) High School.
It just so happened the opponent was Dodge County, whose coach, Lee Campbell, had sent a pretty good player Fabris’ way before — defensive end Charles Johnson, who still is playing for the Panthers.
So when Campbell told Fabris he had a freshman worth monitoring, Fabris was curious.
“Some of that stuff you take with a grain of salt,” Fabris said. “But when certain coaches told you that, (it) meant, ‘Get here as quick as you can.’ (Leonard Floyd) was a ninth-grader who looked like he had all the tools. Some things you just can’t teach.”
Campbell himself, new to Dodge County, had just learned about Floyd. When he arrived, people already were buzzing about Floyd, even though he hadn’t played organized football until high school.
“Freshman practice is the first time I saw Leonard,” Campbell said of the player theBears selected Thursday night with the ninth pick in the NFL draft. “He came out there and set it on fire day one. He was probably about 6-foot-2 and a buck-seventy and he had a dadgum motor.”
Big deal in small town
Floyd was raised in Chauncey, a town of 342 located 10 miles down the road from the high school in Eastman. There’s one yellow light in Chauncey, which is 150 miles southeast of Atlanta and about the same distance south of Athens.
“You’re supposed to slow down,” Floyd said. “You go through Chauncey pretty quick.”
The biggest deal going in Chauncey — before Floyd became a star at Georgia and had his name called in the first round — was the annual Peaches to the Beaches, the name of the yard sale that stretches from Chauncey to Eastman along Highway 341 every year on the second weekend of March.
They’re hosting a large cookout at Lakeside Assembly in Eastman on Sunday. Pastor Tyler Kirkley, who played quarterback at Dodge County a few years ahead of Floyd, is expecting several thousand folks to show up to see the area’s star. There will be a combine for kids to be timed in the 40-yard dash and other activities. A helicopter is going to land.
“He has given every kid in Dodge County hope that they can make it,” Kirkley said. “Football is in our blood here and we want to celebrate with Leonard because he’s gonna freeze his tail off in Chicago the rest of his life.”
Floyd answers a lot of questions with a simple, “Yes, sir,” and says that is part of his Southern upbringing. He’s rarely active on social media because “that’s where all the trouble happens.”
“He’s going to answer what you ask him,” said former Georgia assistant Scott Lakatos, who recruited Floyd. “He’s not going to add any more in there. Such an enjoyable person to be around.”
Floyd grew up playing basketball and competing in track. Ricky Parks, who ran a program for wayward students at the middle school and was a coach, turned him on to football.
“He was the perfect mentor,” Floyd said of Parks, who died of a heart attack when Floyd was a sophomore. “I know he would be proud of me.”
Former Georgia coach Mark Richt, now at Miami, compared Floyd’s personality to that of former Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green. Richt always got a kick out of Floyd’s teammates asking him to stand and address the team. Usually it was wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who the Patriots drafted in the fourth round, prodding him.
“They all loved him and wanted to hear what he had to say to fire them up,” Richt said. “They wanted him to be the man because he was the man. Anyone that productive and that hard working, he had everyone’s respect and love. There’s nothing pretentious about the dude. There is nothing selfish about the guy.”
“Sometimes I wouldn’t even have to say anything,” Floyd said. “I’d just stand up and the team would go nuts. They knew I was quiet and I don’t really talk. I’d give a speech during the game if we were playing horrible. I would make sure I said something to the defense.”
Campbell and Rex Hodges, who took over for Floyd’s senior year at Dodge County, used him all over the place because he was so naturally gifted. He played tight end, defensive end, covered wide receivers and was a beast on special teams.
“There really wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” Hodges said. “What was amazing about him was he was our leading tackler on defense and most teams would try to run away from him.”
Floyd attended Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia for a semester in 2012, playing on the postgraduate team with Clemson’s Shaq Lawson, whom the Bills drafted 19th overall. Floyd called Lawson his best friend at the prep school, and they speculated the last few months about being drafted by the Bears.
“We are definitely going to compete in sacks this year,” Floyd said.
Floyd was an immediate star (at Georgia), leading the team with 61/2 sacks as a freshman. Todd Grantham, now at Louisville, was the Bulldogs defensive coordinator for that season. He likened Floyd to DeMarcus Ware right away and started giving him tapes of the player he coached early in his career with the Cowboys.
Georgia moved Floyd around, though, and he played some inside linebacker and even handled the nickel role, traditionally reserved for a defensive back, because of his freakish athletic ability and speed.
“It really got down to how can we get our best players on the field?” Grantham said. “I had Jarvis Jones for two years and he had 28 sacks for me. If Leonard would have been in that same role, he would have had equal to that if not more.
“Leonard has that kind of get-off, that kind of burst (like) DeMarcus. He is an elite guy from a get off the ball, ability to rush the passer standpoint. But Leonard is actually probably a little bit better than (Ware) moving away from the ball and laterally. He has the ability to play in space.
“He’s probably still a really raw rusher but he does have instincts and feel. Rushing the passer is kind of like running the ball for the ball carrier. There are instincts to it. There is a feel to it. He has those traits.”
Love of game
There’s a fear that athletic pass rushers will struggle going against top-flight offensive tackles every Sunday in the NFL but those who have worked with Floyd aren’t concerned he will fall short of expectations.
“I have told all the scouts when they ask me that he is a (rare) talent,” said new Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Floyd’s coordinator the last two seasons. “His natural position is obviously end of the line, pass rushing, outside linebacker. That’s what he does.
“But if he had been stuck at inside linebacker (at Georgia) all the time, he could have done that and have been drafted to do that. He has been a very unselfish guy. To get our best players on the field at Georgia he had to play a number of positions, not because of him but the other guys. He could kind of make everybody else right. I’ve never been around anyone who has his ability to do those three different things.”
That had to reassure the Bears and the other teams lurking in the top half of the draft for Floyd, including the Giants, who coveted him at No. 10. But you know what had to be magic to their ears?
“Leonard is a quiet dude but Leonard likes ball,” Pruitt said. “He likes to practice. Likes to play. He loves ball.”
That’s what Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox are on the prowl for — players who embrace the game — and they believe Floyd is a special athlete.
Bulk to incredible hulk
The Bears want Floyd to bulk up from his 244 pounds at the NFL combine, and with a 6-foot-6 frame that’s not the kind of concern it would be if he were 6-2. He’s 2 inches taller than Aldon Smith, who was a star for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio with the 49ers.
Floyd needs to hit the weight room and embrace his love of barbecue, specifically ribs. He has pledged to “bring the juice” when training camp begins, not surprisingbecause competition on the practice field brings out the best in him.
“People probably overlook the guy from a small town and I am going to make sure I don’t get looked over,” Floyd said.
When Grantham departed Georgia after the 2013 season, he reached out to Fangio, whom he worked for with the Texans.
“I told him I was leaving and I said, ‘I have a guy for you,'” Grantham said.
It’s a message Fangio and the Bears heeded.