Franklin Regional grad Nate Leopold finds home at John Carroll
Nate Leopold might play safety, but he is getting used to the end zone.
The John Carroll sophomore and Franklin Regional graduate scored his second touchdown in four games Saturday, returning a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown.
“It’s pretty special because when you score a touchdown as a defensive player, there are so many factors that go into it, mostly your teammates creating the play for you,” said Leopold, who scooped up the ball near the sideline and followed a convoy of blockers on his touchdown. “It’s really cool to celebrate with them because when one person scores on defense, the entire defense scores.”
FB: FUMBLE! Nate Leopold snatches it and takes it all the way back for a Blue Streak Touchdown! That’s his second defensive/special teams TD on the year! XP by Lupo is good!@FightingMuskies 0@jcusports 7
1:50 1ST pic.twitter.com/cD8oojqcSs
— John Carroll Sports (@jcusports) October 5, 2019
Leopold also scored on 49-yard punt return in the season opener. His 23 tackles are third on the Blue Streaks (3-1), who are ranked No. 14 in NCAA Division III.
“He has a great aptitude for the game of football,” coach Rick Finotti said. “He studies it like no other. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He anticipates what’s going to happen. … He always has his head in the game.”
Safety still is somewhat new to the 6-foot, 190-pound Leopold, who was a jack-of-all-trades at Franklin Regional. He saw time at receiver, running back, quarterback and cornerback, where he was a two-time Class 5A Big East all-conference selection. Leopold began the transition to safety last fall and worked his way into a starting role. A season of experience has proved invaluable.
“My processing is a lot faster this year,” Leopold said. “Having a whole year of playing the position and playing the system, everything is moving so much slower. I’m picking up my reads a lot quicker.
“(As a safety), angles to the football are really the most important thing because it doesn’t matter how fast and how quick you are, if you’re not getting there at the right angle, it doesn’t matter.”
Special teams, however, is like a home away from home. Leopold was a regular on the units in high school, blocking four kicks as a senior in addition to returning punts. And special teams is where he first caught the eyes of the John Carroll coaching staff last season.
“We were doing punt drills, and he was blocking punts in practice,” Finotti said. “And you try to change the snap count on him, and it still didn’t faze him. He was locked in in practice. It wasn’t about him trying to show anyone up. It was truly about him trying to find a competitive advantage to help his team.”
While some former high school standouts might see playing special teams as beneath them, it’s the opposite for Leopold.
“I think it’s a great place to change a game,” Leopold said. “Some people don’t take specials teams as seriously. If people let their guard down, you can really take advantage and change the game, whether it’s blocking a field goal or setting up good field position. All that stuff goes into winning a football game.”
John Carroll, located about 10 miles east of Cleveland, has done a lot of winning in recent years, reaching the NCAA playoffs in four of the past six seasons, including the semifinals in 2016.
That’s part of the reason Leopold chose the school, which happened to be the alma mater of his mom. One of his other offers came from Division II IUP, where his dad played. Nate said neither parent pushed their school, but it’s clear dad’s loss is mom’s gain.
“He’s really improved his leadership,” Finotti said. “Going from a freshman doing his job without any expectations on him, to now having expectations being a leader — being vocal, really becoming who he is — has really been great to see.”
Jeff Vella is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .