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Colts rookie LB Darius Leonard on fast track

It's time the national football world takes note of Indianapolis Colts rookie linebacker Darius Leonard.

The second-round wrecking-ball has become a galvanizing force behind a better-than-expected Colts defense that sits on the doorstep of returning to the playoffs.

Despite missing one game due to injury, Leonard leads the NFL with 135 tackles this season, on pace to be the first rookie to lead the NFL in tackles since Panthers LB Luke Kuechly racked up 164 tackles in 2012. Second place is well behind: the Packers' Blake Martinez at 118.

Leonard's 11.3 tackles per game are the most by a rookie since 2000, edging out former Defensive Rookies of the Year Patrick Willis (10.9 tackles per game in 2007) and Kuechly (10.3 tackles per game in 2012).

Willis finished with a rookie record 174 tackles, which means Leonard would need to average 13 tackles per game the final three weeks to tie the first-year achievement. It's a lofty goal, but Leonard already has four tilts with at least 13 takedowns -- including a 19-tackle performance in Week 2.

"He's been able to handle a lot of things and also be able to execute at a high rate," defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said of Leonard, via the team's official website. "So we are excited where he is and he just needs to keep getting the looks and just keep playing faster and faster and faster, and more physical and just making more plays. That's what he's there for."

Watch any Colts game and No. 53 is always on the screen. Whether the ball is three yards behind the line of scrimmage or 20 yards down the field, Leonard will find it. He's got a nose for pigskin like a truffle hog has for fungus.

When Leonard gets to the ball, the rookie linebacker rarely misses, bringing thunder to take down ball-carriers big and small. With speed to stick with quick backs and size to body tight ends, Leonard's pass defense has been impressive for a rookie. The 23-year-old also has a knack for rushing the passer, earning seven sacks.

Eberflus, who had been an NFL linebackers coach since 2009 before joining the Colts as DC, said he's never seen a rookie produce like Leonard.

"We certainly thought he had the attributes to do that (and) the physical traits to take that step and that leap. We have felt that all along," Eberflus said. "We just didn't know how fast the development would be there. That's really attributed to him. I mean he has accelerated his learning and (has) done a good job of picking up the package."

Leonard is the only player in the NFL with 100-plus tackles and seven-plus sacks this season, and his four forced fumbles places him tied for fourth in the NFL.

In the final three weeks, the Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign will shape up with Leonard and Chargers standout Derwin James leading the race. If the Colts linebacker takes down the rookie tackle record and helps Indy snag a playoff spot, he could swipe the award from James.

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