Javon Leake drifted to his right and fielded the kickoff at the 3-yard line. The junior running back revved up the engine and started to his left. He shed a tackler, cut across the field and found open space. His Maryland football team had fallen behind, 35-0, in its Nov. 2 homecoming game against Michigan, but Leake was about to provide a bright spot.
"As soon as you see that he gets into space, you know it's a touchdown," Terps quarterback Josh Jackson said after the game. "You can just put your arms up because he's got it."
The return ended with Leake in the Maryland flag-emblazoned end zone for a 97-yard touchdown. The Terps were on the board. And Leake was in the program record books, tying Torrey Smith with three kick return touchdowns in his career.
"I used to watch all the GOATs kick returners that were here -- Will Likely, Ty Johnson, Torrey Smith," Leake said. "I just look up to those guys and just tried to picture myself doing it before I got here and it's actually turned out well."
In his junior season, Leake has cemented himself as one of Maryland's most dynamic playmakers. Entering the Terps' game against Nebraska Nov. 23, he has 636 rushing yards on 84 carries, an average of 7.6 yards per attempt. He's tied for the team lead with seven touchdowns on the ground, matching a number he achieved in just 35 carries last year. And he's averaging 28.11 yards per kick return, one of the best marks in the nation.
Touches haven't been so easy to come by. Throughout Leake's Maryland career, the Terps have been more loaded at running back than any other position. They leaned primarily on Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III in 2017, then Johnson and Anthony McFarland Jr. last season. This year, injuries cut short the seasons of Harrison and Jake Funk, but Maryland still has McFarland, Leake and Tayon Fleet-Davis.
The position group is incredibly tight-knit, but there's an understanding that opportunities are scarce, and each back has to make the most of his chances.
"I kind of go in every game thinking that, knowing I got two guys just as good as me behind me," Leake said. "So just go in and anytime you get the ball, just try and make the play, because you know you're not gonna get that many carries or that many plays because there's so many good people around you."
Speed has always been a strong suit for Leake, according to his mother, Natasha. He ran track in middle and high school. He played both running back and cornerback at Page High School in Greensboro, N.C., and actually received some recruiting interest as a cornerback -- including from East Carolina's Scottie Montgomery, now Maryland's offensive coordinator.
That speed makes Leake a home run threat on seemingly every touch, as evidenced by his rushing touchdowns of 64, 60 and 42 yards this year. But it also makes him a natural on kick returns, when he has more time to accelerate and find space.
"The first thing I look for is just the crease, wherever the kickoff team's overflowing, I just try to go to the crease that they left open," Leake said of his approach on returns. "And then just try to hit my speed."
Leake lived in New York City until he was 12, and he spent more time on a basketball court than a football field. After moving to North Carolina, he signed up for football at Mendenhall Middle School, and "that's when everything took off," his mother said. Leake had a strong junior varsity season as a high school freshman and started being heavily recruited as a sophomore.
"I always thought he would turn out to be a basketball player," Natasha Leake said. "I never saw football being his way to get his education. I never envisioned that."
Leake committed to Maryland July 30, 2016, the same day as fellow running back Fleet-Davis. They didn't plan to synchronize their commitments but had already known each other from camps and showcases. McFarland joined the class in January 2017. The trio has been together for three years, and they refer to each other as brothers.
They haven't enjoyed that same continuity with the coaching staff, though. Leake's two primary recruiters, Anthony Tucker and Pete Lembo, both left after his freshman season. After head coach DJ Durkin's firing in 2018 amid the fallout following offensive lineman Jordan McNair's death, Maryland hired a completely new on-field staff during the offseason, including new head coach Michael Locksley. Leake is playing for his third position coach and offensive coordinator in as many seasons.
Locksley's staff, though, included some familiar faces. Montgomery is Maryland's offensive coordinator. John Papuchis, who recruited Leake while at North Carolina, is the new special teams coordinator. Leake was all smiles when he learned he'd be reuniting with them.
"It's like you're seeing a family member you haven't seen in a while," Leake said. "They know about you, they recruited you, they used to call your phone all the time in recruitment. When I saw those guys, I was just excited. They were excited to see me because they already know what they got."
Leake has impressed by the new staff, which has prioritized getting the ball in his hands. Leake is second on the team in touches (93) and first in scrimmage yards (691) entering Maryland's game against Nebraska Nov. 23. He's been the Terps' ace kick returner and is starting to appear more frequently on punt returns. Through the Terps' first 10 games of the season, Leake had tallied 1,450 all-purpose yards, one of the top marks in the country.
"You'll continue to see us find ways to keep him involved because he has big-play ability," Locksley said. "I've been really pleased with how he's matured this season to where he's become one of our best players."
Looking at Leake's numbers and watching him on film, it's easy to think about a possible NFL future. For now, though, he has a chance to make his mark on the Maryland record books. Another kick return touchdown breaks the tie with Smith. A productive senior season could see him climb high on the career rushing touchdowns list.
Leake and his mother both know he's come a long way at Maryland, but he's not finished yet.
"It actually did hit me when I realized, like, at the end of the day, your name is on the books at Maryland," Natasha Leake said of Javon's record-tying return. "You're a part of history now. Of course, my next thing was, 'Go on and break the record, set a whole new one. ... Let's keep going. Let's push forward.'"
Follow Thomas on Twitter @TKendziora37
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 259: November 2019
Originally published Nov. 15, 2019