Rodney McLeod: The Natural
By Cayce Troxel, Virginia Athletics Media Relations
At training camp this fall, safety Rodney McLeod was approached by Virginia team personnel who informed the senior he would be expected to fill a new role for the Cavaliers this season, and when the call came, he would have to be ready.
That call ended up coming before the season opener. Given less than 24 hours before going live, McLeod did the best he could to memorize his schemes and get down the basics of his new assignment.
“I started off strong, but I made some mistakes toward the end,” McLeod said. “It happens. I just had to trust my instincts.”
His camera instincts, that is.
“He didn’t require a lot of coaching,” said Mike Moraghan. “He was a natural at it, and he did a great job.”
Moraghan is the executive producer of Cavalier Sports Weekly, a 30-minute show devoted to highlights and updates from Virginia’s athletics teams. Broadcast every Saturday morning on Comcast SportsNet, Cavalier Sports Weekly features a different Virginia student-athlete as its host each week. With his impressive background, McLeod was the obvious choice to kickoff the new season.
“He’s a fourth year, he’s a team captain, he’s passionate, he has a great personality,” Moraghan said. “He fits the bill for everything we look for in a host. He’s a player who has had great accomplishments while he’s been here; he’s a leader on the team. It was a pretty logical and easy choice.”
“That was definitely a good experience for me in my last year,” McLeod said. “I enjoyed it a lot. I had some bloopers of course, but I felt like I did one of the best jobs around here. I held it down.”
Holding it down is something that comes as second nature to McLeod as a member of the Cavaliers’ secondary. McLeod was one of only five true freshmen to play during his first season in Charlottesville and was presented the Bill Dudley Award as the team’s most outstanding first-year player for the 2008 season.
“Coming in, you never know how things are going to go and how fast you’re going to pick up on plays and just the speed of the game,” McLeod said. “Going in, I just took it one day at a time. They put me in on a package in the fourth game of the year, and I just embraced the role and took off.”
After appearing mostly in the nickel package and on special teams his first year, McLeod transitioned to cornerback his sophomore season. When Virginia switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive alignment under head coach Mike London last season, McLeod moved to the strong safety position.
The senior captain has started every game in which he has appeared over the last three years, but injuries have prevented him from playing a full season as a Cavalier.
“You never want to get injured,” McLeod said. “It’s tough. All you can do is just deal with it, and it’s all about how you bounce back. I’m one of those guys who has a strong mindset and just wanted to get back out there and help my team out.”
Despite his knee problems, McLeod – together with fellow senior and safety Corey Mosley – has helped the Virginia secondary rank among the best nationally in pass defense.
“We call ourselves ‘Thunder’ and ‘Lighting,'” Mosley said. “Thunder refers to me with my quickness and hard hits, and lightning refers to Rodney’s speed and ability to make flashy plays.”
Those flashy plays are what first got McLeod on television, long before his Cavalier Sports Weekly appearance. For all of his tackles and pass breakups, however, it wasn’t until last season that McLeod finally got a true highlight reel-worthy play: an interception. Going into his junior season, McLeod was the only member of the Cavalier secondary without a pick. Understandably, he was starting to wonder whether his moment would ever come.
“After two years, I was thinking, ‘Man, I’ve been out on the field a lot as a starter. Why haven’t I gotten any interceptions?’ McLeod said. “But you can’t worry about those things. You just have to let the game come. There was definitely some teasing going around in the locker room, but that comes with it. You just have to deal with, and hopefully when that time comes, you can make the best of it.”
The time eventually did come at home against Miami last season – 26 games into McLeod’s Cavalier career. With less than two minutes remaining in the first half and with both Mosley and cornerback Chase Minnifield having already recorded picks against the Hurricanes, McLeod finally snagged that elusive interception.
“After Corey and Chase got theirs, everyone was saying, ‘It’s a magnet out there,’ McLeod recalled. “I just remember the quarterback dropping back, and I could tell that the ball was getting overthrown. The receiver tipped it, and I just put my hands up. From there, I caught it. I was looking to score, but I ended up slipping on the play. It was still an exciting moment. It was everything you want and more.”
“We gave Rod a hard time about the amount of time it was taking him to get his first interception, so I know he was really relieved to finally have us off his back,” Mosely said. “I can remember saying to Rod afterward, ‘It’s about time, but you should’ve taken it to the house.’ We are really a competitive group of guys and love to get after each other whenever we can, but at the end of the day, it’s all love.”
As one of the Cavaliers’ four captains this season, McLeod has worked hard to spread that same competitive-yet “team first”-mentality beyond just the Cavalier backline. McLeod has always had the skills necessary to succeed as a player, but the safety believes his time at Virginia has helped him grow in ways outside the playing arena.
“Just being here at the University of Virginia-on the field, but also in the classroom-has helped me mature,” McLeod said. “I feel like I’ve grown up a lot. Having that leadership role this year, I feel like it shows what I’ve worked toward and what I’ve become. I feel like I’m doing a good job of leading my teammates and just showing the way for all the young guys.”
The senior hopes that maturity will help him succeed at the professional level after college; nevertheless, the sociology major is keeping his post-graduate plans open should another opportunity present itself. While McLeod laughed when asked whether his brief foray into sports broadcasting with Cavalier Sports Weekly could spark an eventual career in television, Moraghan said not to rule it out, especially considering McLeod’s infectiously enthusiastic personality.
“He’s a really great, upbeat kind of guy,” Moraghan said. “We have 650 athletes here, and you wish all 650 had Rodney’s personality. We’ve had a number of people who go on to be either interviewed a lot or end up on television one way or another. You never know what could happen. We can’t take credit for that, but if we can help people along a little bit like that, it’s all worth it.”