ATHENS, Ga. – With less than a minute left, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was standing on his own 24-yard line inside Sanford Stadium. He had already directed the Tigers’ offense to 41 points and five consecutive scoring drives against Georgia’s defense, and was looking to play hero, down three points.
Mettenberger’s right arm had already gashed the Bulldogs’ defense for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns, so successfully directing a two-minute drill seemed imminent.
That was until Leonard Floyd found open space. In fact, thanks to a perfectly executed pick set by defensive end Ray Drew, Floyd flew off the edge and toward the less-than-nimble Mettenberger. Floyd’s eyes lit up, and the closer he came to his target, he said it felt like he was in slow motion.
Before his brain could properly register what was happening, Floyd wrangled Mettenberger to the ground to secure a sack that put the Tigers in a hole they couldn’t climb out of, helping the Bulldogs to a 44-41 victory.
“It was like I was walking on clouds,” Floyd said of the sack. “I woke a lot of people up because they were sleeping on me.”
Few will be sleeping on Floyd in 2014. Last year, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and had 9.5 tackles for loss. He was second on the team with 22 quarterback hurries.
With a seasoned pass-rusher in Jordan Jenkins around and Ramik Wilson collecting 10.2 tackles per game, Floyd’s production largely was overlooked last fall. And that’s fine, because the former prep school standout rarely played to his potential last fall.
He and his coaches envision a much more productive 2014 season after an offseason filled with fine-tuning his skill and shedding some of his raw tendencies.
“Leonard Floyd loves football. You can count on that cat every day,” coach Mark Richt said. “… You rarely have to tell him twice on much when it comes to football. He loves it and he understands it, and he has the athleticism to do it.”
Floyd admits that his athleticism got the best of him at times in 2013. After being one of the best players on the field in high school and at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, Floyd said there were times he couldn’t keep up with the coaching or the other players when he started playing SEC ball.
He estimated “just playing” about 90 percent of the time, leading to subpar technique. He was conscious of what he needed to do, but it was a sloppy transition getting to that point, Floyd said.
So this spring, Floyd worked with linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer to improve his technique. He learned how to set the edge, use his hands more in pass-rushing situations and started staying more level with the quarterbacks he was ruthlessly hunting.
To enhance his pass-rushing skills throughout the spring, Floyd worked with defensive line/Will linebackers coach Tracy Rocker on different hand movements to improve his chopping ability with opposing blockers.
With new defensive line coach Jeremy Pruitt meticulously pushing to develop that raw talent, Floyd is starting to think less and play smarter within Georgia’s defensive scheme. Redshirt freshman linebacker Davin Bellamy even joked that Floyd is moving slower because he’s actually doing his job within the defense.
He might have slowed down some elements, but Floyd's staple is flying off the edge and at quarterbacks. That's what his immediate role will be with the Bulldogs, and what makes him even more dangerous is his ability to drop back in coverage and play in the middle, if needed. Floyd can even play with his hand in the ground, if needed.
“I should be better than what I was as a freshman,” Floyd said. “I’ll do anything to make a play. I’ll run sideline to sideline 100 times just to make a play. I’m trying to be the best player possible, so I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Pruitt has only spent a few months with Floyd, but he’s been impressed. Technically, Floyd could bolt for the NFL after a successful second season in Athens because of his year in prep school, but Pruitt is hoping for another year with Floyd. That’s when Pruitt thinks Floyd could really see him blossom into an early first-round pick in the NFL draft.
“He has a chance to be special,” Pruitt said. “He makes plays.”
And he should make plenty more in 2014.