Daily Egyptian

Player profiles: WR Raphael Leonard travels from ‘Last Chance U’ to SIU

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Raphael Leonard, of Starkville, Mississippi, poses for a portarit Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, at the Daily Egyptian photography studio. Leonard is a recent transfer from East Mississippi Community College and was on the Netflix original documentary series,

Raphael Leonard, of Starkville, Mississippi, poses for a portarit Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, at the Daily Egyptian photography studio. Leonard is a recent transfer from East Mississippi Community College and was on the Netflix original documentary series, "Last Chance U." (Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz)

Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz

Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz

Raphael Leonard, of Starkville, Mississippi, poses for a portarit Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, at the Daily Egyptian photography studio. Leonard is a recent transfer from East Mississippi Community College and was on the Netflix original documentary series, "Last Chance U." (Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz)

By Jacob Selsor

The sound of rock ‘n’ roll music blaring throughout Saluki Stadium during a weekday practice was interrupted by the sharp blast of an air horn, signaling the end of practice and sending most players to the showers.

Junior wide receiver Raphael Leonard remained on the field to perfect his routes in preparation for gameday, highlighting his determination to be one of the best ever at his craft — and a feared weapon on the offensive side of the ball for SIU.

Raphael, or Ralph as he prefers to be called, grew up on the sports fields of Starkville, Mississippi.

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“I always played football, basketball and baseball for as long as I can remember,” Leonard said. “Pretty much anything with a ball.”

Leonard did not just play sports, he excelled at them. He helped lead the Starkville High School Yellow Jackets to a 2014-15 6A State Championship as a guard in his senior season, recording a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game.

Despite his success on the court, basketball was not his best sport in high school. Leonard was a two-time All-State wide receiver for the Yellow Jackets on the gridiron, finishing his senior season in Starkville with 60 receptions for a total of 1,147 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns to earn himself a spot in the prestigious 2014 Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic.

The young receiver shined in the all-star game, catching two touchdown passes thrown by Starkville High teammate Brady Davis in the first quarter on his way to a total of five catches for 59 yards in the showcase. Leonard claimed the MVP award for the Mississippi side in the game.

Early in January 2015 during the Yellow Jackets’ state basketball championship run, Leonard took an official visit to Florida Atlantic University. FAU was actively recruiting the young receiver for the football team, and despite his love for more than just football Leonard knew he was built for success on the gridiron.

“We won a state championship in basketball, but I wasn’t as tall as I wanted to be to continue playing basketball [in college],” he said. “I was better at football than basketball anyway.”

Leonard committed to the FAU Owls later in the month, and signed his letter of intent in February.

He saw action in 11 games his freshman year at Florida Atlantic, splitting time between the offense and special teams. He made an impact in the annual Shula Bowl game between Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University, recovering Florida International’s onside kick attempt to allow FAU to run out the clock and secure its 10th Shula Bowl win.

Leonard’s time at Florida Atlantic was short lived however, only staying for one season. While he received playing time in 11 of the season’s 12 games as a freshman, he only managed one reception for a total of eight yards. The young receiver came to the realization that FAU — and Florida as a whole — was not the right fit for him at the time.

Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz
Raphael Leonard, of Starkville, Mississippi, poses for a portarit Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, at the Daily Egyptian photography studio. Leonard is a recent transfer from East Mississippi Community College and was on the Netflix original documentary series, “Last Chance U.” (Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz)

“I got a little homesick,” Leonard said. “I wasn’t ready for all that at that point in my life. When I was down there I wasn’t myself and I had to get myself back together.”

In an effort to find the right path, Ralph returned home to Mississippi to play football for one of the premier junior colleges in the nation, East Mississippi Community College.

EMCC is a three-time NJCAA National Champion, winning in 2011, 2013 and 2014. The Lions are also five time MACJC/NJCAA Region 23 Champions, winning in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2016.

Its alumni network consists of 14 past and present professional football players, including Philadelphia Eagles running back and two-time Super Bowl Champion LeGarrette Blount.

Situated in Scooba, Mississippi — a rural community with a population of roughly 700 — East Mississippi CC’s success on the football field coupled with its small-town roots led to a Netflix original series titled “Last Chance U”. The show focuses on the student-athletes that represent the Lions on and off the field.

The Netflix series was preparing to film its second season when Leonard chose to transfer from FAU to EMCC, but this did not play a role in his choice to join the Lions.

“I already had ties to them from before,” the wide receiver said. “When I decided to leave [FAU] they contacted me, so I already was going there.”

Leonard is shown in the first episode of season two making a spectacular touchdown reception, which would become something of a habit during his time with the Lions.

While the cameras rolled non-stop on campus and the football field, he led EMCC in its 2016 NJCAA Region 23 Championship season with seven touchdown receptions, catching a total of 23 passes for 357 yards. 

“It was pretty cool.” Leonard said on the filming of the 2016 season. “Sometimes it got annoying, but after a while I got used to it.”

Following the 2016 season, Leonard received offers from Southeast Missouri State University, Troy University and SIU. It was head coach Nick Hill’s dedication towards recruiting the young receiver that ultimately convinced him to continue his career at Southern.

“I already knew coach Hill”, Leonard said. “He had talked to me in high school, and then he offered me again when I was at EMCC. When he gave me another offer I knew he really had faith in me. He knew I could do something here.”

So far Leonard has only proven Hill correct. Through the first two games of the 2017 season, the Saluki wide receiver has caught five passes for a total of 68 yards for an average of 13.6 yards-per-catch.

More impressive is his team leading two touchdown receptions — one in the home opener victory over Mississippi Valley State and one in the Salukis win against SEMO on the road.

Despite being a junior this season, Leonard is already a journeyman in the college football ranks. In his third different offensive program in three years, he understands he must remain a dedicated student of the game in order to reach his full potential.

“If I’m not getting better, I’m getting worse,” the SIU wideout said. “I like to perfect my craft.”

Leonard credits an older cousin with serving as a role model and instilling such a strong work ethic into him while he was growing up.

“He just kept me going,” he said. “He just kept motivating me to actually be somebody, not just a regular person.”

Now that Leonard has found a home at SIU with offensive-minded coach Hill, he is firmly focused on showcasing his talents in the maroon-and-black for NFL scouts. He will get his next chance Saturday when Southern travels to the University of Memphis — where former Starkville High QB Brady Davis currently resides — for its third game of the season.

“NFL is the plan,” he said. “It’s my only plan and I’m not even thinking about anything else. I want to be known.”

If the first two games of his junior season are any indication, Leonard may very well be on his way to sparking NFL draft conversations with his receiving talents.

For now, coach Hill and the rest of the Southern football team are just happy to have the talented wide receiver listed on SIU’s depth chart as a weapon in the passing game while the Salukis look to ride the momentum of a 2-0 start to the season all the way to their first MVFC Championship since 2009.

Sports writer Jacob Selsor can be reached at jselsor@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter @jacobselsor_DE .

To stay up to date with all your SIU sports news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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