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Maryland loses 1-2 punch in backfield, with Javon Leake following Anthony McFarland Jr. into NFL eligibility

Maryland running back Javon Leake (20) runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA football game against Indiana, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in College Park, Md. Indiana won 34-28. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Maryland running back Javon Leake (20) runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA football game against Indiana, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in College Park, Md. Indiana won 34-28. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)(Nick Wass/AP)

Javon Leake began his Maryland football career at the bottom of the team’s depth chart at running back in 2017. He finished it after Saturday’s 19-16 season-ending loss at Michigan State as the team’s leading rusher this season and one of the top return specialists in college football.

Leake announced on social media Wednesday that he was leaving College Park with one year remaining.

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His announcement came less than 24 hours after redshirt sophomore running back Anthony McFarland Jr. announced that he was forgoing his last two years of eligibility to also make himself available for the NFL draft.

For his career, Leake gained 1,143 yards and scored 17 rushing touchdowns on just 145 carries while playing a limited role until this fall. This season, the junior had 745 yards and eight touchdowns on 102 carries as the most explosive player on an offense that ranked 108th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

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Though he has yet to hear from NFL scouts and front-office personnel about his draft potential, Leake said in a telephone interview Wednesday, “I try not to get too caught up in that. I’m just going to stay the course and do what I thought was right. It’s up to me now.”

In his tweet, Leake thanked his parents, adding "this would not be possible“ without his family, which he called "the core of my support system. ... Words cannot express how grateful I am for your love, and support to help me get through this point in my life.”

Leake also thanked Maryland coach Mike Locksley, offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomerie and running backs coach Elijah Brooks “for showing me the way at Maryland. ... You helped me grow on-the-field as a football player and as a man off-the-field."

In a statement released by the team, Locksley said, “Javon proved to be one of our most talented and hardest working players this season. He has big play ability and is smart, tough and reliable. I’m excited to see him showcase his talents in the NFL.”

The combination of Leake’s ability as a playmaker and a lingering ankle injury to McFarland allowed him to become Maryland’s featured back for much of the season, punctuated by a career-high 158 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in a 34-28 loss to Indiana on Oct. 19.

Leake also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, a 100-yarder at Rutgers and a 97-yarder against Michigan. On Tuesday, Leake was named as the Big Ten’s top returner by the league’s coaches and media, and won the Rodgers-Dwight Award. Leake’s 804 return yards led the Big Ten and ranked third in FBS.

Natasha Leake said in a telephone interview Wednesday that her only son knew “about a month ago” that he was going to turn pro.

“He pushes himself always to be the greatest and it got to the point where he wanted more, he wanted to strive for bigger and better,” Leake’s mother said. "I for one thought he was having a decent season and I was a little apprehensive about him trying to go to the draft.

“I didn’t know if he could stand up to a Jonathan Taylor or a J.K. Dobbins, statistically I didn’t know if he had enough. The reports started coming back on his stats, and the awards, and I’m like, ‘Wow, maybe he is doing something great.’ ”

Asked if knowing he was going to turn pro after the season put more pressure on him as he finished his junior year, Leake said in a telephone interview, “A little bit. I did a lot of praying, talking a lot with my mom and my family and I just came out the best decision for my future.”

Leake did appear to have some jittery moments toward the end of the season. He fumbled late in the Indiana game, setting up a field goal for Indiana’s final points. He also had three fumbles in a 54-7 loss to Nebraska on senior day before scoring Maryland’s lone touchdown on a 58-yard run.

Natasha Leake said her son starting dreaming about playing in the NFL as far back as the eighth grade, shortly after they moved from their native New York City to Greensboro, N.C. It didn’t take long for Leake to gain a reputation — and a nickname — in their community.

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“He got the nickname ‘The Sandman’ because he put everybody to sleep by running them over,” Natasha Leake said. “At the end of the season, all the parents used to tell him, ‘You’ve got something special. You’ve got a gift.’ He’d say, ‘Ma, I think I can play in the NFL.’ ”

The combination of his size — Leake is 6 feet and 206 pounds — and his speed made Leake a threat nearly every time he touched the ball at Maryland.

As a freshman playing mostly mop-out duty behind Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison Jr. in one-sided losses or wins, Leake ran nine times for 99 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown against Ohio State and a 61-yard touchdowns against Towson.

As a sophomore playing behind Johnson and McFarland, Leake rushed 34 times for 309 yards and seven touchdowns, including rushing for 140 yards and three touchdowns on just five carries in a 30-point rout of Illinois. He also had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in that game.

His two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season helped him tie Torrey Smith as the only player in Maryland history with three touchdowns on kickoff returns. He passed Johnson in career return yardage and also joined Will Likely III on the short list of Rodgers-Dwight Award winners given for the past five years.

“I felt like that’s going to help me a lot,” Leake said of his ability to return kicks and possibly, on the pro level, punts as well. “I think it’s good to have it on my resume coming off a big year like that. I think it will be helpful throughout the whole process.”

That Maryland’s prospects don’t seem that bright for next season after the Terps finished 3-9 this season — losing nine of their last 10 games — didn’t impact his decision to turn pro, Leake said.

“With the circumstances if we had a different year, I still would have made the [same] decision,” Leake said.

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