Canadian defensive back Deane Leonard wanted to compete against the top competition and learn from the best.

Playing in the Southeastern Conference? Check.

Learning from one of the best to ever play in the NCAA? Check.

Terrell Buckley won the Jim Thorpe Award, annually presented to the top defensive back in NCAA Division I football, in 1991 while starring at Florida State University. After leaving the Seminoles as a junior, Buckley was picked fifth overall in the 1992 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers and spent 14 seasons in the pros. Leonard felt a genuine connection with Buckley during the recruiting process.

“That’s where I want to be, that’s the goal is get drafted like that. The resume is a big thing, but when it comes to coaches in my situation, character says a lot. He really emphasized life after football, how he’ll help me out after too,” Leonard said. 

“He played a big role. My family loves him, I love him too. I’m excited to be coached by him. I’m glad to be working with him. I was really excited that I have someone like that supporting me. I’m just glad to have him on my side.” 

Leonard delivered his commitment news to Buckley personally on Wednesday morning. The University of Mississippi was competing for the Calgary native with strong interest also coming from Louisiana State University. The University of Maine, the University of Louisiana Lafayette and the University of Southern Mississippi also submitted scholarship offers.

That’s a major difference from when Leonard was coming out of Notre Dame High School three seasons ago. He tried to garner NCAA attention by going to NCAA Division I and I-AA camps, but there were no scholarship offers. Leonard decided to stay and play for his hometown university.

The University of Calgary is where he quickly turned into a star and All-Canadian performer. Leonard provided lockdown coverage for the 2019 Vanier Cup champions. After the 2020 U Sports football season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, any possible transfer options were considered.

“It’s been really hectic for me. A lot of anxiety going on, but I’m just glad I have a decision now. It feels like all the work I’ve put in over the years came to this, I’m glad it happened the way it did,” Leonard said. 

“It feels great to hear from these schools, but I still know that the work is ahead of me. I’m a guy who always looks to the next step. If I don’t perform on the field as soon as I get to camp, there won’t be much to talk about. I’m focused on the work that I have to put in.” 

Being able to compete for playing time right away was the most important factor for Leonard who has one year of NCAA eligibility left. 2021 will be his NFL and CFL draft year and in order to rise up the boards, Leonard needs to be on the field. Head coach Lane Kiffin and his new staff don’t have any allegiances to players already on the Oxford, Mississippi campus.

“They have no real veterans there now, you have the older guys, but everyone is going to be new to this coaching staff. All I really asked for is a chance to compete and opportunity to play. I have to put my best foot forward and I have to be one of the best players on the team,” Leonard said. 

“Especially as a Canadian guy I’m going to have to learn new schemes, new technique, all that kind of stuff, so it will help me ease in when everyone is learning. The entire coaching staff made me really comfortable with what’s going on there and a lot of reassurance and talks, it just comes down to how comfortable I was with their staff.” 

Leonard’s dad, Kenton, played NCAA football at Nicholls State University located in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and played seven seasons for the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders. His father’s experience helped Leonard work through making a final decision on where to play.

“He was huge. I don’t want to admit it to him, but he did a lot of work for me. He was on the phone all the time, if he had a second chance he would become an agent,” Leonard said. 

“He believed in me since I was coming out of high school and I had zero offers in the United States. He was a big part of it. He’ll give his two cents and opinion, but it’s about what I decide. He really made sure that it was my decision at the end of the day.” 

Leonard won’t be the only Canadian on the Rebels roster. As the process played out, he was talking and texting with Tavius Robinson, the Guelph native who committed to Ole Miss in June. The pair of Canadians are planning on being roommates at Mississippi and pushing each other to make an impact. 

“It’s going to be a culture difference for sure, but having another Canadian guy next to me is going to help out a lot,” Leonard said. 

Both Robinson and Leonard are focused on using Ole Miss as a launching pad to an NFL career. Working with Buckley could be the key element for the six-foot-two, 193-pound cover man to reach his goal. Buckley has coached for 13 years in the NCAA and had 13 players sign NFL contracts, including multiple first round picks.

“You want to play in the best conference you can — competition brings out the best in me,” Leonard said. “I’m excited for the change, it’s going to be good for me. Iron sharpens iron, I really want to play against that completion and be the best version of myself.”

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Justin Dunk is a CFL insider, sports reporter and news anchor.