'The most humble kid': New starting quarterback Riley Leonard brings faith, edge and a smile to Duke football

Riley Leonard, a sophomore from Fairhope, Ala., is Duke's new starting quarterback.
Riley Leonard, a sophomore from Fairhope, Ala., is Duke's new starting quarterback.

Sophomore Riley Leonard sits behind a small table at a Duke press conference Tuesday, two days after being announced as the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback.

"It's really a dream come true, something I've been praying about a lot," he says, as his genuine smile and boyish charm lie in stark contrast with his 6-foot-4, 212-pound frame made even more imposing by shoulder pads that stretch against a red practice jersey.

Sweat above his brow and a case of helmet hair are evidence of the physical strain of morning practice, but any lingering fatigue doesn’t stop him from giving the questions he is asked his full attention and consideration. 

"I love seeing 'Duke football projected worst in the ACC,' I love seeing 'Riley Leonard worst quarterback in the ACC.' I honestly just read it and laugh," he says. 

From another athlete, these words could come across as cocky or snide. From Leonard, however, they are just the quiet assuredness of a player confident in what he needs to do for his team and what he knows he can do. 

‘The good people that I met in Alabama’

Leonard attended Fairhope High School in his hometown of Fairhope, Ala., for four years, and it was there that he fell in love with football. His high school coach, Tim Carter, told The Chronicle that he first noticed Leonard when he was in eighth grade. 

"He had the frame. ... And then as I got to know Riley, more and more I thought he had all the intangibles that go along with great athleticism," Carter said.

Still, it wouldn’t be until Leonard’s 10th-grade year that he really got the chance to prove himself. In Sept. 2018, as Fairhope took on rival Daphne in a battle known as the Jubilee Cup, Leonard started after an injury to the team’s veteran quarterback. The Fairhope Pirates went up 17-0, but Daphne fought its way back with two consecutive touchdowns followed by a field goal. However, led by Leonard, the Pirates ultimately got it done in overtime.

In a highlight video of the game, a newly 16-year-old Leonard, interrupted by his own laugh and the hoots and hollers of teammates, credits his defense and his kicker for the win wearing the same smile affixed to his face to this day. 

He started full-time the following year. However, the team struggled because, according to Carter, Leonard’s supporting cast was “young and inexperienced.” His senior year was when Leonard truly showed his stuff, as he threw for 1,900 yards and 25 touchdowns, alongside 500 rushing yards.

But when Carter thinks of his time coaching Leonard, those accomplishments aren’t what come to mind. After exchanging pleasantries, the first thing Carter told The Chronicle was, "He's one of the most humble kids I've ever coached. Probably the most humble kid I've ever coached."

Far from just football, Fairhope, Ala., taught Leonard the faithful humility that anchors him against adversity and endears him to all he meets. 

"A lot of my core values and what I believe in come from the good people that I met in Alabama and the good Christians and the good family people I met," Leonard told The Chronicle. "I couldn't be more grateful for [my upbringing]."

Those core values, far from a narrow-eyed focus on sports, prioritize his faith and his family above all else.

"When I go to sleep at night, the first thing I think of is did I further my relationship with Jesus Christ? Did I treat my family right? And then football comes along, but faith is everything for me," he said Tuesday. 

Carter admires that fact about Leonard and recalls just how kind he was to everyone in his community, especially children. 

"On the last day he's in Fairhope, he went to [defensive line coach Brett Horne’s] children's birthday. Right before he left. I mean, that's just the kind of guy he is," Carter said. "He is a beloved member of the Fairhope community, because he was just so special and caring. It was just every day was something that you just said, 'Man, this guy's special, he's just different.'"

But as much as Leonard’s faith and kindness have cemented his place in the hearts of Fairhope residents, they also help Leonard through the adversity of high-level sports. 

"It's really relieving to have a higher spirit that has your back, something that you can fall back on," he said Tuesday. "When I'm down, that's the first thing I go to; I run to the Father when I'm down. And he always picks me back up."


It is not a secret that the Blue Devils are not projected to win many games this year. Despite a real feeling in Durham that new head coach Mike Elko could turn the program around, that is still a long hill climb away, and every hill has a bottom. Last season, Duke hit that bottom. 

Longtime head coach David Cutcliffe left the program at the end of the 2021 season after 14 years, having led the team to a 2-9 record in 2020 and a 3-9 record in 2021. The last time Duke won a conference game was nearly two years ago, and, while it logged one more win last season than the prior one, the Blue Devils’ points margin per game dove from -13.3 to -16.9. 

In the fourth quarter against Wake Forest in Oct. 2021, down 45-0, the Blue Devils found themselves one late touchdown away from being shut out twice in a row for the first time since 2006. The only thing that saved them from that fate was a drive engineered by Leonard, a then-freshman who entered the game late. The drive began with a 17-yard dash from the 31-yard line, included a 39-yard throw to wide receiver Jalon Calhoun, and ended with Leonard scampering two yards into the end zone, all within two minutes. 

If the 2021 season had been a movie, Leonard would have immediately been named QB1 and led the Blue Devils, a plucky group of underdogs, on a miraculous comeback tear. That didn’t happen, of course, and Leonard continued to see limited action afterward. Still, the drive was reminiscent of the overtime wins and comebacks of his high school days, and it points to the kind of 'never quit' competitor he is. 

Two-time team captain DeWayne Carter, a redshirt junior defensive tackle, said of the quarterbacks on ACC Media Day back in July, "They’re young but they’re firecrackers." 

Tim Carter put an even finer point on it. 

"He's just so competitive. But he does it in a way that doesn't alienate. It's an inclusive competitiveness," he said. 

'We go fishing together'

Nowhere is that more clear than Leonard's friendship with sophomore quarterback Jordan Moore. 

Throughout fall camp, Leonard and Moore were entangled in a tight battle for the starting quarterback job.

New offensive coordinator Kevin Johns spoke to the intensity of the decision in a Friday edition of the All 22 podcast before it was announced. 

"They’re hungry, they want to win, they compete. I’ve never been around quarterbacks who work as hard in practice as these guys," he said. 

However, rather than let that competition get in the way of their relationship, they use it to grow their connection on and off the field. 

"Ever since he got here, Riley’s been one of my closest friends. I mean, we go fishing together, we hang out outside of football," Moore said Tuesday. "I feel like we play well off each other. He trusts me. I trust him. ... It's just fun to be out there with him."

Leonard, too, among many in the program who herald Moore’s talent, credits Moore’s own excellence on the field with making him a better player and, ultimately, getting him the starting job.

"The great competition in the quarterback room that we had this fall camp—I really don't think that I would be in this position without that competition," Leonard said. "So I'm super fortunate and try not to get a big head at all, because, at the end of the day, I haven't even done anything yet."

'Talking trash'

Before he was a quarterback, Leonard was a basketball player, something he shares with his father, who was a standout guard for The Citadel in the mid-90s. In high school, Leonard played on the varsity team, eventually being named to the Alabama Sports Writers Association Super All-State Basketball Team. Moore, too, lettered in basketball before coming to Duke, and the dynamic duo’s Renaissance-man qualities have given way to a friendly war in the Duke locker room. 

"We had fun kind of talking trash that the quarterback position room—they think they’re better [at basketball] than the wide receiver position room, which, at all the other schools I’ve worked at, I don’t think it’s ever been that way," Johns said on the All 22. "But when you put Jordan Moore, Riley Leonard, Gavin Spurrier, some of those guys, they’re a pretty talented basketball group." 

Whether the units take to the Wilson Recreation Center courts to settle that debate or not, basketball still plays an important part in Leonard’s life, especially as he works to become a better, more versatile quarterback. 

"A lot of different cuts that I use in basketball I've been able to take and use on the football field. And then athletically in general, I think I gain a lot of athleticism, jumping up and down grabbing boards on the basketball court," Leonard told The Chronicle. 

Still, basketball is just one of the aspects of his identity that has brought him to and helped him succeed in Durham. 

When Leonard was getting recruited, Tim Carter told Duke, "You’ll love him more every day. He's just so consistently positive, and he's got such a happy outlook. You just can't get enough of him."

Beyond that, though, no one can agree on what Leonard’s greatest strength is. Elko specifically emphasized his consistency in a media availability Monday, while Johns points to a balance of "killer instinct" and situational awareness. Tim Carter noted, "I think the strategy that football requires excites him."

The only thing that is clear is that a lot of people have a lot of confidence that he is the player to carry the program into the future. 

As for Leonard himself, that’s just a little too prideful. 

"I don’t really think too much about [the future]," he told The Chronicle with a laugh. "Hopefully this team will be remembered for many years to come, but I’m just trying to not let it blow up my head."

For the rest of our Duke football preseason coverage, click here.

Sasha Richie profile
Sasha Richie | Sports Managing Editor

Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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