Q&A with Southern Illinois wide receiver Raphael Leonard

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illlinois senior wide receiver Raphael Leonard ranked sixth in the MVFC in touchdown receptions (5) and earned All-Newcomer team honors in 2017. He finished the year with 34 receptions for 530 yards and five touchdowns. The Starkville, Mississippi native was second on the team in receiving touchdowns and yards per reception.

15556You were a three-sport star in high school. What made you settle on football?
I played football, basketball and baseball. I quit baseball after my sophomore year to focus more on football. Basketball is my first love, but with my height and ability and knowing I wasn’t going to grow any taller, I just knew football was going to be the sport for me in the future.

After high school, you played one season at Florida Atlantic. What were your takeaways from that season?
It was a great learning experience for me. I played as a true freshman and not many people get to do that. 

Your next stop was at East Mississippi Community College where you led the team in receiving and won a national title. What areas did you make your greatest growth?
It’s the best juco in the nation and there’s a lot of competition there. It can humble you a lot. There are so many great players there, so you’re spot isn’t safe. 

You also were involved in the Netflix show Last Chance U. Take us behind the scenes of what it was like to be on a documentary TV show.
It could be annoying at times. With the cameras being around all day, every day, you just had to get used to it. Once you get used to it you can enjoy it. Some people will try to not be themselves in front of the camera, other people would get the wrong idea from it, they’ll get a different narrative from what the documentary is actually trying to show. The show was mainly about the competition and how juco life is. It was about how you can find so much football talent in a small town in Mississippi.

What brought you to Southern Illinois?
I had other Division I offers, but Coach (Nick) Hill recruited me out of high school, so we already had the connection when I was at East Mississippi. I trusted Coach Hill, liked his offense and knew this would be the spot for me to flourish. 

Describe your game, your strengths as a receiver.
I feel like I have the best hands in the nation. I’m athletic, feel like I can be a deep threat, I have a great catch radius so anything in my vicinity I tell the quarterback to throw it to me and there’s a great chance I’ll catch it. I can make any catch thrown to me.

You’re known to put in a lot of extra hours to sharpen your game. What are some examples of things you do?
I just go by the motto I learned from one of my high school coaches — he used to say, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. Every day I try to find something to get better at, whether we have practice or we don’t. When we watch film, I look to see what my mistakes are and I try to get better at that the next day. Nobody is perfect, so I try to keep working to perfect my craft.

What goes through your mind when you’re working one-on-one against a corner and you know the ball is coming your way?
Just win. Coach (Nick) Williams tells us to win the one-on-one matchups out there, beat the guy in front of you and catch the ball. 

How are you able to make so many acrobatic plays?
I feel like it’s just a God-given talent that I have and being blessed with great athletic ability.

The offense looks like it has a lot of playmakers. Give us the scouting report on who you think will be some of the top weapons this year, besides yourself and Darrell James.
We feel like we have the best receiving corps in the nation. Sam (Straub) is getting back healthy and we feel like we have the best quarterback as well. We have a new receiver Matt (Quarells), Landon (Lenoir) is coming back from injury, we have Sam Bonansinga, and the running back corps as well. We’re just trying to polish everything and get ready for the fall. 

I know the NFL is on your radar. What do you need to show scouts to demonstrate you can play at the next level?
I need to show that I’m a big, strong receiver that can use my strength to win the one-on-ones against a bigger corner, that I’m fast enough to be a deep threat and that I can do anything I’m asked to do as a receiver.

Who are some of the biggest influences in your life?
My mom and dad and three older sisters — my mom will do anything for me. I want to make it to the league so I’m able to give her anything she wants and return the favor. I have three older sisters and two nephews who look up to me and I just want to be a good example for them and return everything to them.

What are your hobbies and interests away from the game of football?
I still like to play basketball every now and then and I’m a real video game freak.

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