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Colts’ Shaquille Leonard working to overcome fear of injury after missing most of past 2 seasons

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard warms up before practice at NFL team's football training camp in Westfield, Ind., on July 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

WESTFIELD, Ind. (AP) — Shaquille Leonard finally looks and sounds like his old self.

The Indianapolis Colts star linebacker is running around, making plays at training camp, injecting energy with his customary nonstop voice.

On Saturday, after missing most of last season with an impinged nerve that required season-ending surgery, the three-time All-Pro took another major step in his long road back by returning to full contact in team drills. One of the most-watched players at camp also knows there’s one last hurdle to overcome.

“I’m just going out and taking the fear out of making contact,” Leonard said. “I would still say fear — just being able to have contact for the first time in a long time, not knowing what result was going to come. It feels good, it feels amazing and I’m just happy to be out there.”

It was evident each time Leonard lined up at Grand Park in Westfield, Indiana, about 30 minutes from the team headquarters. And it was noticeable in his typically candid post-practice assessment, too.

Since entering the league in 2018, the South Carolina State alum has never shied away from giving opinions. He’s emerged as a major proponent of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), a prominent spokesperson in the Colts’ mental health awareness campaign “Kicking The Stigma” and frequently explains how he uses perceived slights as motivation.

This time, though, Leonard finds himself describing his own struggles.

After being severely hindered in 2021 by what doctors initially diagnosed as a back injury, Leonard missed six of the first seven games last season before undergoing a second surgery to alleviate the nerve pain in his lower left leg. The 14 missed games were twice as many as he’d missed over the previous four seasons combined and the prolonged absence, Leonard has repeatedly said, made him feel as if he wasn’t part of the Colts.

Teammates and coaches, of course, always felt differently.

“Physically, he has really challenged himself,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “He knows the level and the standard of what his play should look like, and he sees the steps that are getting closer and closer to that. If it’s not the way he thinks it should look, he’s his worst critic, so it’s a point where we’re offering him a little grace as he gets through this and he works through it, but he wants to play at that level right now.”

Leonard understands Indy’s cautious approach even as he tries to build on stats that consistently rank among the NFL’s best.

He led the league with 163 tackles when he earned the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award and became the first player in league history to have 300 tackles in his first 30 games. Even at less than full strength in 2021, he had 122 tackles, forced eight fumbles and had four interceptions.

And his trademark hand punch has produced 17 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries during his five-year career. Plus, he has 12 interceptions.

So after two frustrating seasons and missing all of the Colts’ spring and summer workouts, Leonard was eager to get back and teammates were happy to welcome him back.

“It’s always good to put the pads on because football is not played in shirts and shorts,” linebacker Zaire Franklin said Sunday. “It’s good to have him (Leonard) back out there running around. It’s good for everybody.”

Leonard completed that workout, his second straight with full contact, with a flourish as he tries to regain the form that allowed him to average 9.0 tackles in 61 games. Neither Bradley nor new coach Shane Steichen have said whether Leonard will play in Saturday’s preseason opener at Buffalo, though it seems unlikely.

But Leonard knows the ultimate goal is finding the uncanny style opponents have feared in time for the Sept. 10 regular-season opener against Jacksonville.

And after watching himself struggle on tape last season, Leonard can already see a different player on tape this summer.

“I’m starting to see somebody that resembles the guy I used to know,” he said of his most recent training camp clips. “I’m building more confidence, I’m shooting through gaps, getting in windows. That’s what I want to see on film, and that’s what I’m happy to see right now.”