“He is Georgia Tech”: A walk-on who willed himself into a team leader, Dylan Leonard knows what a bowl game would mean for his legacy.
Inside The Chart | By Andy Demetra (The “Voice of the Yellow Jackets”)
He had visualized it for years, but when it finally happened, Dylan Leonard admits he had a hard time savoring it. At least, he thought, it gave his dad, Colby, who celebrated his birthday two days earlier, one more gift.
On his 38th career reception, in his 48th career game, Leonard finally caught his first career touchdown pass, at the same stadium where he played in his first-ever game for Georgia Tech.
The touchdown, though, came in the closing minutes of a disappointing 42-21 loss at Clemson. Days later, excitement still wasn’t the right word to describe that moment. Relief didn’t fit either.
For the senior tight end, perspective still has the right-of-way over personal satisfaction.
“It’s good to check it off the list, but either way, I’m not playing for touchdowns. I’m playing for wins,” Leonard said.
Dylan Leonard hauled in his first-career touchdown catch last Saturday at Clemson (Danny Karnik photo)
More specifically, he knows what one more win would do.
Five years after joining Georgia Tech as a walk-on, hoping to compete at a position that had been dormant for more than a decade, Leonard can help the Yellow Jackets clinch bowl eligibility for the first time in his career when they host Syracuse at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Hyundai Field (8 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports).
Of all the skill players who arrived at Georgia Tech in that class of 2019, Leonard is the only one still on the roster. The Milton, Ga., native knows what a bowl could mean for his legacy: a walk-on who not only bet on himself, but on a program that he knew would endure some grim times as it transitioned out of the flexbone option.
He checked off his first touchdown last week. A bigger goal still remains.
“It would be rewarding for the guys, rewarding for the fans, rewarding for the Institute. It’s something that I’ve been thinking [about] since I’ve been here, to be honest. I really, really want that bowl game, and I’m going to do everything I can this Saturday and the following week to get it,” he said.
Conventionally speaking, Leonard’s 12 catches for 122 yards don’t scream impact. Defenses aren’t keying on him. Game plans don’t revolve around him. But Brent Key knows his team wouldn’t be on the brink of bowl eligibility without him.
At his press conference last week, the Georgia Tech head coach took a question about Leonard’s receptions and turned it into an impassioned, 94-second soliloquy about his importance to this year’s team.
“If anybody has watched Dylan Leonard play football this season, they would be blown away,” Key said.
His voice rose as he spoke, the emotion smoldering with each point. “No. 2 is playing as good as any tight end in the country right now when it comes to the way he blocks – blocks in the core, blocks moving, blocks on the perimeter. I cannot be more proud of that kid right now and what he’s doing for this football team.
“You talk about somebody that bleeds Georgia Tech? Bleeds White and Gold? Is all about this place? Watch the way he plays for 50 plays, 60 plays, 65 plays in a game. He is Georgia Tech. That’s the grit. That’s the toughness. That’s the intelligence. That’s everything that this program is about, the way he’s playing the game,” he said.
Head coach Brent Key has called Dylan Leonard “as good as any tight end in the country right now when it comes to how he blocks” (Danny Karnik photo)
Asked about it afterwards, Leonard smiled.
“It means a ton to hear him say those words. It makes me proud of myself. He’s a guy that I would run through a wall for, and I’m sure he’d do the same for me,” he said.
The mutual respect runs deep between Leonard and Key. As he likes to point out, they both started at Tech together. After winning a Georgia Class 7A state title at Milton High School, where he earned second team all-state honors while teaming up with quarterback Jordan Yates, Leonard thought he’d continue his career at Penn. Key had just been hired as the assistant head coach/offensive line coach/run game coordinator for his alma mater.
Yates, who had already committed to Tech, started selling Key on his teammate. The Georgia Tech staff had to create a tight ends group from scratch, and a 6-foot-5 walk-on with room to fill out his 200-pound frame seemed like a good value proposition.
When Key visited him at Milton, his pitch was straightforward. Do you want to play in front of 5,000 people or 60,000 people? Do you want to play big-time football or small-time football? Leonard recalls him asking. Two days after that December meeting, he called him to commit.
“It’s been the best decision of my life,” Leonard said. “It’s kind of turned into something I don’t think either of us ever thought it was going to turn into.”
VIDEO: Georgia Tech student-athletes weekly media availability (pre-Syracuse)
He made his first catch by the second game of his freshman year. By the start of his sophomore year he had earned a scholarship. He went from a reedy 200 pounds to a block-of-granite 240. He became a walk-on who willed himself into a leader. He stayed steady as losses, injuries and a modest catch count could have eaten away at his resolve.
His commitment didn’t waver off the field either. As a junior, he was named a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy honoring the top scholar-athlete in college football. He earned his bachelor’s in business administration last December and is currently pursuing his master’s in analytics. He’s dedicated countless volunteer hours to Scottish Rite Hospital. He still texts almost every week with Brentley Russell, a young leukemia patient whom he befriended on one of his visits. In October, Leonard was named one of 20 semifinalists for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year, an award honoring “college football’s best leaders who exhibit exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field.”
Key talks often about being a “Tech Man.” To him, here’s no greater honorific. It’s reserved only for those who live and breathe the values – toughness, intelligence, discipline, unselfishness – that set a Georgia Tech student apart.
Key has called Leonard a “Tech Man” often this fall. On the Yellow Jackets, it’s hard to find a coach and player who are more kindred spirits.
“I think what it really comes down to [is] we both care about this place so much and want to win here so badly. Obviously, he’s a Tech Man. I’m a Tech Man now after I graduate in December. We’ve been through such lows together, and such highs, and it’s kindled that relationship between us,” Leonard said.
His value has jumped even more this year with the arrival of offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner, whose playbook uses a heavy dose of two-tight end sets. Leonard steeled himself in the offseason for all the kinds of blocking his job would require.
“The tight end is one of the hardest positions to play. People expect you and count on you to block like an offensive lineman. They expect you to run routes like a receiver. They expect you to do all the shifts and the motions and all the things that take place, especially within our offense. The precision that you have to have at that position, and the detail – when you’re doing all of those things, that’s hard. It’s hard physically. It’s hard mentally,” he explained.
According to Key, Leonard’s talents – both tangible and intangible – have shined in Faulkner’s system.
“To be able to do everything so unselfishly, to put the team first, those are the guys that I love,” he said.
“He’s very versatile in everything we ask him to do within the offense … There’s not enough positive things that you can say about it,” Faulkner added.
Leonard appreciates that love. Being a “Tech Man” will always have a deeply meaningful ring to him. Another touchdown wouldn’t hurt either. But for now, he wants to add one more title: bowl-eligible Tech Man. That, he knows, would guarantee him another month with the program that has already given him so much.
A showdown with Syracuse awaits. But putting on his uniform for the final times in his Georgia Tech career, Dylan Leonard is already sure of one thing.
“This is my home. It forever will be,” he said.
Competitive Drive Initiative Turn 2
Looking to build on the success of last year’s Competitive Drive Initiative, Georgia Tech, the Georgia Tech Foundation and Georgia Tech athletics are partnering once again to launch Competitive Drive Initiative Turn 2. CDI Turn 2 has a goal of raising $2.5 million in new gifts to the Alexander-Tharpe Fund’s Athletic Scholarship Fund by Dec. 31, and Georgia Tech and the Georgia Tech Foundation will match eligible gifts to accelerate the impact for Tech athletics. Like last year, not only will gifts to CDI Turn 2 be matched, but so will the contributor’s benefits in the way of A-T Fund giving levels and priority points. To learn more and contribute online, visit atfund.org/turn2.