College News & Analysis

Duke QB Riley Leonard is proving his biggest doubters wrong — even his own mother

• Duke quarterback Riley Leonard sits down for an exclusive interview with PFF.

• One of the top five quarterbacks in the 2024 NFL Draft: Leonard placed fifth in PFF lead draft analyst Trevor Sikkema’s 2024 draft quarterback rankings.

• “You suck”: Before every game, Leonard’s own mother sends him a “You suck” text to fire him up.

“You suck.”

It's not an uncommon phrase to hear from rival fans trying to throw opposing players off their game. An athlete receiving the taunt from their own mother, however, is unheard of.

Duke quarterback Riley Leonard encourages it, though. He asked his mother, Heather, to go from his biggest supporter to his biggest hater.

“Growing up in a smaller community, I was a really good athlete and everyone wanted to give me praise all the time,” Leonard said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “I was so sick of it. I needed someone to bash me, give me some criticism and wake me up.

“My mom raised her hand and was like, ‘Dude, I’ll do it before every game.’ Ever since then, she’ll send me a ‘You suck’ text or before an interview, ‘Hey, don’t suck at this interview.’ It brings me back down to reality. She’s not the best at it because she’s obviously my mom and the sweetest person ever.”

Despite being the star athlete in Fairhope, Alabama, Leonard didn’t receive a football scholarship offer until the end of his junior year in high school. Until then, he was planning on playing basketball in college. It was only when his quarterbacks coach, David Morris, showed former Duke coach David Cutcliffe his tape that he decided to stick to football.

“I definitely felt like I was overlooked,” Leonard said. “I never took an unofficial or an official visit to any school. I came up here blindly. Obviously, when Cut offers you a scholarship to a school like this, you don’t turn it down. You can’t fail when you come to a school like Duke. I know it’s kind of cliche to say, but worst case scenario, you graduate and you’re going to get a great job.”

Leonard spent his freshman season in 2021 as the backup to Gunnar Holmberg, starting once against Virginia Tech and earning a 53.7 grade in a 48-17 loss.

“Just a complete disaster,” Leonard said.

Expectations were relatively low for the Blue Devils this past season after they finished with a 3-9 record in 2021. They were introducing a new quarterback in Leonard and a new coach in Mike Elko. However, Leonard knew there was something different about the 2022 squad.

“I think we started to believe that we can win,” Leonard said. “The year before, we had the same personnel, maybe even more talented. But nobody really thought we were going to win. I think we went into every game a little hesitant. There was still a doubt. Last year, Coach Elko came in, hopped off the jet, came into our facility and said, ‘We’re winning now.’ He’s not bringing in guys from the transfer portal, he’s not waiting a couple years. He said we’re winning now, with the backups from the year before. Once you hear that over and over again, you start to believe it.”

The Blue Devils did just that this past season, improving to 9-4 — the program’s best record in eight years. Leonard excelled, leading all ACC quarterbacks with a 1.7% turnover-worthy play rate and placing fifth among Power Five signal-callers with 776 rushing yards.

This summer, PFF lead draft analyst Trevor Sikkema named Leonard his fifth-best quarterback prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft, something the junior isn’t focused on.

“I really try not to think about it as much as possible,” Leonard said. “My goal is just to beat Clemson and play good football. Because if I don’t, then these conversations aren’t even going to be had. I know it’s a political answer, but I can’t get caught up in these Heisman-type plays that people expect from me. My job is to get four yards a play and put points on the board.”

While Leonard isn’t thinking about his NFL career just yet, he spent part of his summer learning from two of the greatest quarterbacks the league has ever seen, Peyton and Eli Manning. Leonard was one of the college quarterbacks invited to be a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy, a camp that’s designed to teach kids the basic fundamentals of the game. While there, Leonard learned from Peyton that to be a great professional, you have to enjoy the game just as much as when you were a kid.

“Talking with Peyton, he said one night that doing these types of things reminds him of why he played the game of football,” Leonard said. “You’re talking about a guy who’s made so much money and is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. And all he wants to do is get out there with little kids and play in the 100-degree weather in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Money isn’t everything, status isn’t everything. It’s just about having fun and loving what you’re doing.”

Leonard himself hosted a camp over the summer in his hometown of Fairhope because he ultimately understands that he’s playing for a lot more than the name on the back and even front of his jersey.

“I have a purpose of affecting people,” Leonard said. “Before every game, I tell myself that I’m playing for two things: the man above and those who can’t. I’ve been in situations where I was injured and not able to play. There’s no worse feeling than being vulnerable and not being able to do something for yourself. There are so many kids who want to be in my shoes, and I’m not going to take that for granted. So any time I don’t want to do something, I remind myself that there are millions and millions of kids across the world that would want to be in my shoes right now. How can I complain?”

Even though Leonard is in a position many dream of, he’s not stopping to smell the roses just yet.

“I’m the type of guy who’s never going to tell himself that he’s made it yet,” he said. “Even though people may think, ‘Oh, dude, you’ve already made it.’ In my opinion, I haven’t really done much. My goals are to win an ACC championship and make it to the NFL. If those two things happen, my next goal is to win the Super Bowl. So, I’m never going to be satisfied or complacent with anything in my life.”

If he ever does become complacent, his mother will surely fix that with a simple “You suck” text.

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