SPARTANBURG, S.C. – It’s hard not to notice J Leman.
Whether it’s the dirty blond hair flying out of his helmet as he runs, his shortened one-letter first name or the intensity he brings to the practice field, the Carolina Panthers first-year linebacker tends to draw some attention.
He leads the team this summer in stops – which is to say he’s been stopped by coach John Fox more than any other player and told to tone down the intensity a notch in practice.
“Sometimes there is a little extra curricular stuff and you try to calm that down some, still have respect for your teammates and yet still play in a combative game,” Fox said of Leman.
It’s not that Fox doesn’t appreciate Leman’s effort.
He loves it, in fact.
But he just wants him to be smarter and not risk injuring his teammates unnecessarily during practice. He’d prefer Leman save that aggressiveness for games.
“He's right,” Leman said. “We've got to protect our teammates. I tend to err on the side of going too far, not on the side of caution. So when you say you err on the side of caution I probably err on the side of going too far.”
But Leman sometimes can’t help it if he goes a step beyond wrapping up the ball carrier and then letting go when the whistle blows as some of Fox's practice drills dictate.
It leaves him feeling like the job hasn't been completed.
He went to Illinois, after all, the same school that produced one of his childhood heroes Dick Butkus. Butkus once told Leman to “just go hit people” and he’s been doing that ever since.
In 2007, Leman led the Illini with 124 tackles and had 9.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks and was named second-team All-American. He started 41 games there during his career.
“Defense is a mentality,” said Leman. “Personally it's hard for me to sometimes to just go out there and wrap up people. Then they ask you to turn it on and bring people to the ground on game day. It's tricky for a defensive player when you get to this level because you don't want to hurt guys, but at the same time you want to work your techniques.”
Fellow linebacker James Anderson describes Leman as “a wild man" on the field.
“He’s a guy that loves football and plays it with great intensity,” Anderson said. “He’s headed first to the ball. He’s a ballhawk and he’s always around the ball. Those are the kind of guys that make great linebackers.”
It hasn’t always made Leman all that popular with the offensive guys, some of which have taken offense to his extracurricular activity.
Tight end Gary Barnidge was quick to praise Leman’s his aggressiveness and high energy motor. But when asked if Leman gets under the offense’s skin, Barnidge grinned and said, “He can, but you can’t it let bother you.”
Despite finishing sixth in Illini history in tackles, Leman was drafted in 2008 and later signed a free agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Like so many undrafted rookies, he was cut and found himself out of football, wondering if he’d ever play again. He had a tryout with the New York Jets, but when no teams came calling, Leman went to work as a television reporter for the Big Ten Network.
“I had to pay the bills,” he said.
It was fun, he said, but it just wasn’t like playing.
He called being out of football for a year a “big test of faith,” and vowed that if he ever get another chance he’d make sure to make an lasting impression. And that’s why the Panthers are getting a player so ripe with intensity and desire.
“What I learned is you've got to bring it every day no matter what,” said the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Leman. “Hustling, hitting, mentally knowing what you're doing. So from the day I've got here I've tried to do that.”
Leman’s been getting quite a few reps in practice due to injuries to Thomas Davis and backup Landon Johnson. In fact, one day he found himself running with the first team defense after third-stringer James Anderson tweaked his hamstring.
In his first game action Monday night against the New York Giants, Leman had seven tackles and drew praise from Fox.
“He's a tough guy,” Fox said. “He likes to play the game. He plays it with the right attitude. I thought in game situations he played downhill and was very physical, so I liked what I saw.”
Leman’s first name is listed as “Jeremy” in the team’s media guide, but he simply goes by “J” for short. He likes the sound of it better. His long unkempt hair might suggest Leman has a wild side to him, but he's actually quite grounded. The son of two pastors, Leman already has a bachelor's degree in speech communication and a master's degree in human resources. He was awarded an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship as a finalist for the Draddy Trophy which recognizes the best college football player in terms of academic success, athletic performance and community leadership. He's also very involved in his parents' nondenominational church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Champaign, Illinois.
And while his chances of making the Panthers 53-man roster are probably as long as that shoulder-length hair, Leman isn’t about to concede anything.
“I feel like nobody is going to give you anything,” he said. “You've got to go out and take it and show what you can do. That's what I try to do every day: hit and hustle.”