Harrison Leonard serves up a new approach to Notre Dame's kicking situation

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The most significant transformation that Harrison Leonard insists he has made since the last time Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly saw him in person seven months ago has to do with a book about tennis.

Which is quite an assertion, given that the 5-foot-11 kicker from Jamestown, R.I., has powered up to the tune of 28 pounds, to 208, since taking his official recruiting visit to ND and connecting with Irish director of football performance Matt Balis for the first time.

“My kickoffs are deeper,” he said in a telephone interview this week. “The ball just comes off my foot a lot more strongly.”

His greatest strength, however, is above the eyebrows, he said, thanks in part to “The Inner Game of Tennis,” a book authored by Harvard English Lit major-turned tennis pro Tim Gallwey and originally released in 1972, roughly three decades before Leonard was born.

The message about how to build mental toughness apparently is so timeless and so universal that Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll used to coax his star players, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush among them, to read it while Carroll was coaching at USC. He still embraces it today and has since written a foreword to the book for its updated editions.

“I think the single-most important thing is getting better mentally,” Leonard said of his own game.

Kelly, Balis, special teams coach Brian Polian and the rest of the Notre Dame coaching staff will get their first look at the reimagined Leonard in mid-June when he enrolls as a freshman preferred walk-on and perhaps potentially the most impactful one since starting slot receiver Chris Finke showed up without a scholarship roughly four years ago.

Had junior-to-be Jonathan Doerer wowed the staff with improved kickoffs and place kicks this spring in attempting to replace the school’s all-time leading scorer and most accurate place-kicker, Justin Yoon, Leonard was still expected to push him and compete for both jobs.

But while Doerer showed off great range, particularly on field goal attempts, he didn’t flash consistency, which has been a chronic issue, particularly on kickoffs.

While Doerer’s touchback rate on his 56 kickoffs (44.6%) in 2018 was only slightly below the national average (45.5%), he kicked the ball out of bounds three times. And his sometimes low line drives and poor direction helps contribute to the Irish ranking 108th nationally out of 129 FBS teams in kickoff coverage.

He ceded the kickoff job back to a fatigued Yoon for the regular-season finale at USC and the CFP semifinal matchup with Clemson.

Leonard and Doerer have never met, not even when the senior at an all-boys boarding school in Connecticut, Avon Old Farms, was on his official recruiting visit in South Bend.

Leonard and Yoon, however, knew each other long before the visit and are still in regular contact today. They share the same outside kicking guru, Jamie Kohl.

Leonard reconnected with Kohl the first weekend in April at a camp in Fullerton, Calif., where he also got a chance to work with Oklahoma kicker Austin Seibert, a top NFL prospect at his position, and New Orleans Saints standout kicker Wil Lutz over a three-day period.

Leonard made six of his nine field goal attempts during his senior season at Avon Old Farms and was ranked the No. 8 kicker nationally in his class by Kohl after the season.

“I just wanted to get Harrison out there, so he could hopefully expedite the whole maturity process,” Kohl said, “coming from high school and then obviously having to perform at a very, very high level.

“He looked stronger. The ball was definitely jumping off his foot, He was continuing to refine his craft. Having different wind conditions each day helped. We had the narrow (college uprights 18 feet, 6 inches vs. high school’s 23-4.). Being around really good players helped.

“There’s a lot of golfers who can do a real good job on the driving range, and they need to play the course to be able to call on those same shots that they have on the driving range. Sometimes those shots are a little different.

“There are different angles. And some of that comes with experience. Being able to be experienced in different conditions, different environments, different people around you is extremely valuable.”

Leonard saw some value in attending Notre Dame’s spring finale, the 90th Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame, last Saturday, but his commitment to being the starting shortstop for the Avon Old Farms baseball team overtook him at the 11th hour and kept him back in New England.

“We were playing a rival,” Leonard said of a 7-4 victory over Loomis Chaffee.

Baseball is one of the draws that pulled Leonard to the boarding school, located a two-hour drive from home, in the first place. The program is teeming with Division I college prospects, and produced notably Major League outfielder George Springer and former South Bend Cub Cael Brockmeyer, now a double-A catcher/first baseman in the Orioles organization.

Leonard was the team’s closer last season in addition to playing shortstop. The right-handed reliever’s fastball reportedly topped out at 91 mph.

“What I got out of that was how much I wanted to be a kicker, which sounds funny,” he said. “I decided pressure situations are what I love. I thrive in those. It’s just fun to me.”

Initial conversations with Notre Dame, when the football recruiting process was heating up, was that being a two-sport athlete with the Irish would be an option for Leonard. But he said he hasn’t had contact with the baseball coaching staff for months and isn’t pushing for it.

“If baseball happens, it happens,” Leonard said. “That’s my mindset now. I’m focusing on football. That’s what I’m coming to Notre Dame to do. Even though I’m playing baseball this spring, I kick on a regular basis and keep doing the weight training program coach Balis has outlined for me.

“That may sound like a lot, but that’s one thing about this school, we’ve got nowhere else to go.”

As much as Kohl would love to profess that he’s been right about every prospect he’s coached when it comes to predicting how they’ll handle the step up to the bigger stage and the brighter lights, he admits you really don’t know for sure until they’re in that situation.

“Harrison has prepared for it,” Kohl said. “Sometimes you get chances early and you have success, and you really don’t know anything else, that’s great. Sometimes, even though you’re a good player, you might not be ready and then you get a label and reputation that’s hard to shake.

“In the game of football opportunities are limited, and when you do have your chance, you have to perform.”

Leonard said he just wants a chance to show where his game is, apply the Zen Buddhist principles from the “Inner Game of Tennis” and compete every day to be an answer to ND’s lingering offseason special teams questions.

“My expectations are that nothing is going to be given,” he said. “I’m going to go in there and do what I do best, stay within myself and not try to do too much. My main goal is just to do the best that I can do. Whatever happens, happens. And as long as I know I’m doing my best, I’ll be OK with that.”

Harrison Leonard, a 2019 kicker commit, could also play baseball for Notre Dame.