One of the questions coming into this training camp is who would step up and take the key blocking tight end spot for the Raiders. Greg Olson had said back in minicamp that the competition was wide open, with the frontrunners being last year's sixth round pick, Nick Kasa, and second year undrafted free agent, Brian Leonhardt.
"It's difficult," Olson said last June of the Raiders tight end competition. "Both of those players, [David] Ausberry and [Mychal] Rivera, their true positions are more of an ‘F,' because they're serviceable blockers but they're not dominant blockers. There aren't a lot of those in the NFL at the tight end position. If you're looking for a true ‘Y,' we're hoping the other two tight ends, [Nick] Kasa and Bemidji [Brian Leonhardt], might be able to fill."
Now, after two weeks of camp, Dennis Allen has given the edge to Leonhardt and the Raiders put out their depth chart this week where Leonhardt was the third tight end behind David Ausberry and Mychal Rivera.
"Brian Leonhardt is a guy that has steadily improved and so I would say right now it would be Ausberry and Rivera and then Leonhardt probably right after that." Said Allen.
That same day, Ausberry was missing from practice with what Allen described as "a little knee" which suggests it was of no concern. The next day, things got more interesting when as it turns out Ausberry will need to have surgery on his knee today and he will be out for an indefinite amount of time. Now Leonardt goes from the favorite for the third tight end job to what could be a starter.
Last season a similar thing happened. Ausberry went out in the preseason and Mychal Rivera took over his job as the receiving threat on this team. But it was utility tight end Jeron Mastrud who was actually given the official starts (12) while Rivera got the spotlight in the passing game but officially started just three games.
Now Leonhardt will step in and take that role.
"Last year I was on the practice squad and I got a bunch of reps," said Leonhardt. "Coming in as an undrafted guy, there's definitely room for improvement that I had and I definitely took a lot of big steps last year and then coming into this year through OTA's and stuff. That next man up, that is me. I think I definitely have earned that."
It has been a pretty large hill Leonhardt has climbed to get to this point. In fact, a mountain may be more accurate.
"Coming from a division II school it does feel like a mountain to climb," said Leonhardt, "but once you get into it and you start to get comfortable with it, with the team and with the speed of the game the mountain gets smaller. It still is a mountain and you gotta keep climbing."
The Division II school of which he's referring is Bemidji state (pronounced Beh-mid-jee). You may have noticed Olson referred to Leonhardt as "Bemidji" when he discussed him. Bemidji State University is a small college about three hours north of Minneapolis Minnesota. Leonhardt stayed close to home to attend BSU. He grew up in near Minneapolis, where the Raiders will be traveling for their first preseason game Friday.
So, as it turns out, his sudden status as the Raiders possible starting tight end couldn't have come at a better time and he couldn't be more excited about it.
"I'm more excited." Leonhardt beamed. "It definitely does put a lot on my shoulders but when it comes down to it, I'm out here because I love it and that puts it into pure excitement. All I've ever wanted really is to be a part of this team and make an impact on this team and help the Raiders win football games. And if I'm in a position to do that, that's nothing but exciting."
"I got a lot of family coming to the game. Coming from a small school, a lot people wanna see me play. That puts them in perfect position to go to a preseason game in Minnesota."
Over the past year since he first joined the Raiders, he's been getting himself ready for this opportunity as a member of the team's practice squad all last season. Most young players in his position might be pretty nervous about such a big stage. But Leonhardt is not. He was a three-sport athlete in high school and one in particular not only helped give him his edge as a blocker but prepared him for any size stage - wrestling.
"There's nothing more nerve-wracking than wrestling," he said. "Playing in front of 60,000 fans with the Raiders is nothing compared to one on one in a matt. Every time."
"With wrestling, it's definitely a different feeling than football. Those preseason games, they're really just more fun. When it comes to practice, I would say there's more stress for me during practice, just making sure everything's correct and everything is perfect and when it comes to the game, I'm not worried about that, I'm just worried about just playing. I've worked for it, I've done all the practices, played hard every day, I've studied, and at that point it's just let it all go and just play."
It's a story usually reserved for embellished Hollywood feel-good films. Producer pitches the idea to studio execs: ‘Local boy picks up football in high school and stays close to home for college, excels at his level of competition but is overlooked by most NFL teams. One NFL team gives him a shot and he earns a spot on the practice squad. He later works his way into the starting lineup and takes the field as an NFL player for the first time in front of adoring friends and family. It's like Rudy meets Invincible'.
First preseason games don't usually have a lot of drama for fans, but for Leonhardt and a group of local fans, it will carry a lot more meaning.