After helping lead EMCC to a state championship, former Starkville standout Raphael Leonard is headed to Southern Illinois. Photo by: EMCC Media Relations/JuCoWeekly.org
January 7, 2017 9:37:16 PM
Raphael Leonard feels better prepared for the second time around.
Southern Illinois University announced the signing of the former Starkville High School and East Mississippi Community College standout Friday morning. Leonard will enroll for the spring semester and have two seasons to play with the Salukis.
"I am excited about another opportunity to play senior college ball," Leonard said. "My experiences at EMCC really helped me grow and mature more. I just feel more at ease about leaving home and taking on this challenge."
As a senior at Starkville in 2014, Leonard helped the Yellow Jackets win 13 straight games and enjoy a No. 1 ranking for most of the season. He caught 60 passes for 1,147 yards and 14 touchdowns as an all-state compliment to A.J. Brown, who just completed his freshman campaign at Ole Miss.
Out of high school, Leonard signed with Florida Atlantic University, where he stayed one semester. Leonard appeared 11 games with the Owls but only had one reception.
"Coming back home was the right decision," Leonard said. "Sometimes, you feel like you need to make a change. It was a wonderful opportunity at EMCC. The coaches were great there and gave me an opportunity. I really learned a lot and developed as a both a person and as a player."
At EMCC, Leonard knew he would be a big piece in the up-tempo offense for the Lions. His chemistry with starting quarterback DeAndre Johnson was undeniable. Johnson, a Florida State transfer, ironically has just signed with Florida Atlantic.
"Ralph was an incredible teammate," Johnson said. "The thing with him is you could throw it anywhere in his area and he was going to come down with it. Not only does he have good size (6-foot-3) but he knows how to use it to his ability. He came out and worked hard every day. Even though he has always been a great player, he worked like he had something to prove every day."
Leonard had 23 receptions for 357 yards and seven touchdowns in his only season with the Lions. EMCC won its final 11 games, including the school's fifth Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) state championship and fourth-ever Mississippi Bowl win.
EMCC finished second in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) rankings.
"The only goal around here is a national championship," Leonard said. "Since we weren't able to achieve that, the season was a little bit of a disappointment. Overall, we had a good time. It was great playing with so many great players. I know I will have teammates doing big things in senior college and later (in the National Football League). The main thing you learn here is work ethic. In high school, it all came naturally.
"Here, you have to work for everything. There are a lot of guys just as good as you, so it's a challenge. It's rewarding when you have a chance to go out there and make plays. It was fun watching this team come together."
EMCC offensive coordinator Marcus Wood when Leonard made the initial switch and joined the EMCC program last January.
"He is a special player," Wood said. "You could tell he came here and was really determined. The success of any passing game is the amount of time (quarterbacks and receivers) spent together. Ralph was always had a special connection with whomever was playing quarterback. He was a great addition on the field and in the locker room."
A member of the Football Championship Subdivision's Missouri Valley Football Conference, Southern Illinois finished 4-7 this past season. Nick Hill will be entering his second season as head coach.
"I have enjoyed getting to know the coaches and some of the players," Leonard said. "They throw the ball a lot (an average of 42.9 attempts per game in 2016). There are a lot of similarities in the two offenses, so I am looking forward to working hard and getting some opportunities."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
1. Stephens making changes COLLEGE SPORTS
2. Loss of Patterson one of several Shorter has had to fill HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
3. Jones brings new energy to Starkville football program HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
4. Walters column: Prep Football Questions - Week 3 HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
5. Luke has dream job at Ole Miss, but he is in tough spot COLLEGE SPORTS