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Notre Dame Football

Leonard believes Notre Dame is the ideal place to achieve "my dream of playing in the NFL”

February 6, 2024

Sam Hartman stood outside Duke’s medical tent following Notre Dame’s 21-14 victory over the Blue Devils in late September.

His teammates had already begun celebrating a top-25 road win, but his post-victory jubilee could wait. 

Sure, the Fighting Irish signal-caller had just led a 10-play, 95-yard drive, which included a game-saving, 17-yard scramble on fourth down with 16 yards to go, to put Notre Dame ahead in the final minute. 

First, he waited to check on Duke quarterback Riley Leonard, who suffered a significant ankle injury after Howard Cross III strip-sacked him with 18 seconds left in the contest. 

Moments later, Leonard emerged from the tent on crutches. The quarterbacks hugged, shared a few words and departed to their respective locker rooms.

At the time, ESPN and the rest of the college football world overplayed Hartman’s postgame gesture after the broadcast captured the entire moment live.

“It’s very cool to see him sitting there,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said of Hartman on the air. “He just wanted to check in on him.”

Even if the significance of that moment was overblown, their bond might’ve played a significant role in the program's future. 

During the season, Leonard never fully recovered from the high ankle sprain he suffered against Notre Dame. He made two more appearances at the end of October against No. 4 Florida State and No. 18 Louisville before a toe injury ended his season.

Once considered a potential first-round pick at the 2024 NFL Draft, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound quarterback began plotting a new course for his immediate future. He entered the transfer portal at the end of November, and Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman reached out immediately. 

Leonard conducted his due diligence on the Irish program, which included several discussions with a quarterback who knows what it’s like to transfer to Notre Dame: Sam Hartman.

“We had some long conversations on the phone together because there obviously is a lot that comes with being a Notre Dame quarterback,” Leonard said. “He's coming from Wake; Duke, we're kind of on the same levels when it comes to like fan bases and media attention and whatnot, but coming here, obviously, is another level.”

On Dec. 12, Leonard committed to the Irish after realizing it’s impossible to turn down the opportunity to play at Notre Dame for Coach Freeman, especially given his ties to the program. His great-grandfather, James E. Curran, played for the Irish as part of the 1940 class. 

Plus, he also grew up a “Rudy” fanatic. 

“Me and my brother would watch it every single day,” Leonard said. “So, it's so crazy to be here now. I'm coming in, like, super humble perspective, just so grateful to be here. Every day, I walk on campus, and just wearing this logo on my chest just means so much to me. 

“Hopefully, I can represent it the right way.”

Leonard also realized a significant portion of Notre Dame’s “high-flying” defense, which finished 2023 ranked fifth yards allowed per game, would return in 2024. 

That includes future NFL prospects like Ben Morrison, Rylie Mills,  Jack Kiser, Xavier Watts and even Howard Cross, who Leonard says still owes him dinner for his game-ending sack against Duke. 

“I told him there's a Ruth's Chris, like right down the road,” Leonard said. “That was a lot of weight on my ankle.”

He arrived on campus in early January and decided to undergo “high-ankle tightrope surgery,” which, as ISD already reported, required him to wear a walking boot for a few weeks and skip specific lower-body strength and conditioning activities. 

“We got here and, ‘Ahhhh, we could risk it and play. It ended up healing pretty well. We could risk it and play in spring and maybe in the fall and have no problems.’ But there was a risk of re-injuring it because it was a little loose.”

The boot was already off when Leonard spoke to the media on Friday, Feb. 2, and Leonard says he’s full-go in the weight room. He’s only avoiding sprinting and agility drills. 

He’ll be ready to roll by the time spring ball begins sometime in March. 

Of course, the injury is somewhat of a blessing in disguise, at least from Notre Dame’s perspective. 

There’s a good chance Leonard is currently preparing for the NFL Combine if not for the injury. 

“The portal was never really anything I really thought of until I got hurt,” Leonard said. “I was just like, ‘Dude, I got one year left of this.’ I'm a risk-taker. My whole life, I've just been a risk-taker. So I was like, ‘I got one shot.’ Twenty years from now, I want to look back and say, ‘I gave it everything I had.’ 

“I ended up here, and I think this is the best place to get me to my dream of playing in the NFL.”

Besides, the top priority early in his Fighting Irish career is building relationships with his players and diving into the playbook with new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock.

Those are areas where he can develop whether he’s full-go in February or not. 

“If you don't have the plays down, you can’t fix your game,” Leonard said.

Once he gets those down, he can hone in on the aspects of his game that Notre Dame needs him to improve upon before facing his former head coach, Mike Elko, in the season opener at Texas A&M on Aug. 31.

That means completing more than 57.6% of his passes like he did in 2023,  a season that also included an equivalent interception-to-touchdown ratio.

“I'm here, and I need to approach this season like an NFL quarterback,” Leonard said. “So, all the intangible things when it comes to playing the game, how to handle yourself before the game, how to prepare. Then, the tangible things on the field. Obviously, pocket awareness, arm strength — I know all my weaknesses. 

“I think those are pretty loud and clear. So, I'm ready to attack those things and accept that challenge.”

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