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A role player his first two seasons, Maryland running back Javon Leake seems ready for star turn

In his first two seasons at Maryland, Javon Leake sat and watched the Terps football team upset Texas in the opening games each year.

On a team stocked at running back, Leake didn’t receive a carry as the Terps beat the Longhorns, who were ranked No. 23 nationally each year.

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“I learned a lot about myself going through that,” Leake said during the spring. “I knew what type of player I was, I knew I could always bring something to the table. I just needed the opportunity. I waited. I prayed a lot. I just waited for the opportunity and any time I got a chance, I tried to do my best. And it worked out for the best. Everything’s falling into place now.”

Because of what he did in a limited role the past two years — rushing for 408 yards and scoring nine touchdowns on just 43 carries while also scoring on a 97-yard kickoff return last season against Illinois — Leake is in a much different place going into his junior season in 2019.

It was just a matter of time, and making the most of his chances. Now, with Ty Johnson graduated and playing for the Detroit Lions, and redshirt junior Lorenzo Harrison III bothered by a nagging hamstring injury after missing most of last season following minor knee injury, Leake is clearly right behind redshirt sophomore Anthony McFarland Jr. on the Terps’ depth chart.

And not too far behind, either.

While McFarland is Maryland’s featured back after breaking LaMont Jordan’s freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards last season, Leake is “1B,” according to first-year coach Mike Locksley. He has also replaced Johnson as the team’s kickoff returner. Despite catching just one pass in his first two years, Leake is viewed as a receiving threat, both out of the backfield and in the slot.

“Position flexibility with Leake is probably the most exciting thing as far as him being one of our weapons, not just out of the backfield but being able to be aligned in different positions, and then understanding the offense from a run-game, pass-game standpoint,” offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said earlier this month.

“We’re also really excited to have him as a returner for us on special teams. As you guys all know, the closer we get the ball to the goal line, it gives us a better chance to score. … He’s extremely fast. He doesn’t mind running it between the tackles. He can get the ball to the perimeter, he can block on edge, he can do all those things.”

Maryland running back Javon Leake goes throught drills at the Terps training camp.
Maryland running back Javon Leake goes throught drills at the Terps training camp. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Running backs coach Elijah Brooks, who as head coach at nearby DeMatha Catholic High coached both McFarland and Harrison, is excited about Leake’s versatility. It has led to Leake being named to the Paul Hornung Award preseason watch list. The award typically goes to one of the nation’s leaders in all-purpose yards.

“Javon is a big play waiting to happen every time he touches the ball,” Brooks said in the spring. “He has an Eric Dickerson running style [tall and upright], but one cut and he can score from anywhere on the field. It’s scary to think as he progresses how good he can be. And we have a long way to go. So far, it’s evident how good he is.”

Leake is excited about the offense Locksley, who coached running backs in his first stint at Maryland under Ralph Friedgen, has brought with him from Alabama. It’s an offense that relies on its running back to use power, playing smashmouth football, as well as their speed, elusiveness and ability to catch passes out of the backfield.

In essence, it’s the opposite of what the Terps used last season under interim coach/offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who relied mostly on the jet sweep. Leake showed flashes of his versatility, including a four-touchdown game last season against Illinois in which he finished with 274 all-purpose yards. He was named the Big Ten’s Offensive and Special Teams Player of the Week.

“It gets to show what I can bring a lot more. It puts me at different places on the field and it gets to show my versatility,” Leake said. “This offense suits me a lot better and I ran that in high school with the shotgun.”

At Page High School in Greensboro, N.C., Leake rushed for nearly 4,000 yards, with more than 3,500 of them coming his last two years. He averaged more than seven yards a carry as a junior. He scored 59 rushing touchdowns, 29 of them as a senior. But because of his size (6 feet, 206 pounds) and speed, he was recruited nearly as much as a potential cornerback or safety.

Ironically, one of those recruiting him for defense was Montgomery, who was going into his first season as head coach at East Carolina.

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“We were trying to find a different way to get him in the building,” Montgomery recalled. “We thought he had a great skill set for defensive back. We also thought he had a great skill set for running back. He was just a really unique talent. The first time I saw him, not quite as filled out as he is now, he was such a big guy that could go play the corner position, go play the safety position, but also help you on offense.”

Montgomery said Leake was one of first players he saw when he got to College Park after being named offensive coordinator.

“He was smiling from ear to ear,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery’s hiring also helped Leake, who had previously told some teammates he had been recruited as a two-way player.

“His teammates didn’t believe he could possibly be recruited on both sides of the ball, so he had to come to me for validation of that,” Montgomery said with a smile.

Asked how good a cornerback he was, Leake said, smiling, “I was really good.”

Maryland running back Javon Leake (20) celebrates his touchdown with offensive lineman Derwin Gray (55) and offensive lineman Spencer Anderson (54) during the first half of an NCAA football game against Ohio State, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in College Park, Md.
Maryland running back Javon Leake (20) celebrates his touchdown with offensive lineman Derwin Gray (55) and offensive lineman Spencer Anderson (54) during the first half of an NCAA football game against Ohio State, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in College Park, Md. (Nick Wass / AP)

How good Leake might be in an expanded role this season will be on display when the Terps open the season Aug. 31 against Howard. According to Locksley, Leake has had a strong preseason camp, including a solid performance in last week’s first scrimmage. A practice clip of Leake making a move on a would-be tackler and running into the clear made the rounds last week.

McFarland, whose hurdle over defensive back Fofie Bazzie was the highlight of the scrimmage, said Leake is among the most versatile players on the team.

“He’s special,” McFarland said. “He’s a return specialist and he can get in the backfield and he can do the same thing as he does on kick return. He has it all, man. He’s elusive, he has speed, he has power. He’s big. He got bigger, stronger and faster this year. He added that to his game. I’m just excited for him. The sky’s the limit for him. He can do a lot of things.”

Said Leake: “I just try to be the best player I can be, the best teammate I can be. If I’ve got to catch, if I’ve got to block, if I have to do anything, I will do it. I just try to pick up my game from last year. I want to work on catching more this year, blocking more. Just bring my game up to the next level every time. I don’t want to stay the same. I want to keep improving.”

But Leake, who scored a team-high seven rushing touchdowns last season, won’t forget the feeling he had watching last year’s season opener from the sideline as well as playing behind McFarland, Johnson and others for most of his first two years.

“It was definitely motivation, seeing all the other backs get in the [2018 Texas] game, do what they do,” he said. “I didn’t really get to play as much as I wanted to, but like I said, I knew what I could do.”

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