Around the fringes of the Texas Longhorns offense, there was wide receiver Dorian Leonard, making one-handed catches in practice, then dropping then in a critical 2015 Orange-White game.
Through two seasons on the 40 Acres, Leonard had appeared in 17 games, but made only one catch, for seven yards against Oklahoma as a freshman. And while Leonard appeared in all 12 games in 2015, his only statistics were two tackles on kickoffs against Texas Tech.
But, as with several other wide receivers on the team, the arrival of offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert with his veer-and-shoot scheme offered Leonard another opportunity this year.
“I guess you could say that all season I fought all year,” Leonard said last week. “And, obviously, I wasn't on the field as much, so I took that as motivation for the offseason and working on everything. I talked to the coaches to see what I need to work on more and I gained their confidence through the spring and fall and like that. So I just keep on rolling with it.”
The only problem was that there were plenty of outside wide receivers — sophomore John Burt, sophomore DeAndre McNeal, freshman Collin Johnson. So it wasn’t going to come easily for the Longivew product in 2016.
In the Orange-White game this spring, Leonard flashed a bit with a 32-yard catch among four receptions, but the expectations weren’t high for him entering the season with all the talent surrounding him and his lack of previous impact.
So even when Leonard caught a 46-yard touchdown pass against UTEP, it seemed like a mere blip — a nice play against a bad team.
While the junior wide receiver continued to fly under the radar, he kept working.
“He's just gotten better week in and week out, and it's the positive thing about our offense is guys getting the opportunity for quite a few reps,” Gilbert said last week. “So he's taken advantage of his reps, and then he's taken advantage of targets during the football game, and he's made plays that we needed when they presented themselves to him. So he's done a good job of continuing to grow in those areas and it works out about where he's going and where he's headed.”
As the vertical passing game cratered in the loss against Oklahoma State, a 49-yard catch and run by Leonard on a hitch route that nearly went for a touchdown served as one of the few bright spots.
In the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma, long perceived as the leader in Leonard’s recruitment of high school, he continued to emerge in providing one of the big plays in the second half that helped keep Texas in the game — a 45-yard touchdown catch.
“I mean, it still is unreal,” Leonard said last week in reflecting on his big play. “Like catching the ball in the OU game, to say I did that, that when I scored, it's just unreal. I didn't believe it. But I just need all my teammates to go celebrate with me on that.”
Against Iowa State, Leonard continued to show improved rapport with freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, catching five passes for 47 yards. Another 17-yard gain was negated because right tackle Tristan Nickelson was flagged for being an ineligible player downfield.
Considered a possession receiver coming out of high school, Leonard is showing reliable hands this season as he somehow manages to create separation down the field despite his lack of game-breaking speed.
With those three big plays, the 6’4, 200-pounder now ranks second on the team in receiving yardage behind converted quarterback Jerrod Heard with 11 catches for 206 yards. Only freshman Devin Duvernay is averaging more yards per catch for the ‘Horns than Leonard, who gains 18.7 yards every time he touches the football.
Having made an impact on the field for the first time in his career, Leonard is now serving as the motivator for Burt as he goes through his injury-plagued and drop-riddled season.
“I talk to John almost every day. We're pretty close, so we just -- when we go into practice, I just tell him keep your head up, don't worry about anything that's going on, focus on going forward and things like that,” Leonard said.
After all, Leonard has been there. And he overcame that adversity to emerge as one of the team’s most reliable wide receivers.