It would be understandable if the Southern Oregon football team hadn’t had Tanner Leaf on its scouting report prior to last week’s game against the College of Idaho.
With roughly 10 defensive snaps to his name during his college career, it would have been easy to overlook the freshman linebacker.
After what he did to the Raiders during the Yotes 29-3 win, every team in the Frontier Conference figures to have a big red circle around No. 39 from here on out.
Making his first career collegiate start, Leaf was all over the field. He led the College of Idaho with 10 tackles, including four for a loss and two sacks for a total of 15 yards. As a cherry on top, he was named the NAIA National Defensive Player of the Week.
Not bad for a guy getting his first chance at the spotlight.
“It’s been crazy,” Leaf said about his whirlwind week. “I got told I was going to start on Tuesday, so I just had to get in the game plan, mentally prepare and get ready for a big game. I went in, trusting what we’ve been doing, trusting my teammates around me and just tried to execute that game play the best we could. It turned out awesome.”
Leaf will get his second career start when the Yotes (2-1, 2-1 Frontier Conference) travel a couple hours north on Interstate 84 to take on No. 11 Eastern Oregon (3-0, 3-0) in La Grande, Oregon, today. Game time starts at 2 p.m. MDT.
For the College of Idaho, the hope is that last Saturday was only a sign of things to come for their young linebacker.
“He’s been, in a sense, the surprise of our fall camp,” said College of Idaho coach Mike Moroski. “He’s just got better and better and better and is taking advantage of every opportunity, including Saturday. That’s what you’re looking for. He’s a guy that is very conscientious, very smart and there’s a certain toughness to him as well, that defies all of the numerics. He’s taller and slender and hasn’t played much, but he’s been really, really good in practice.”
With starter Joey Calzaretta banged up in recent weeks, the Yotes started looking for younger linebackers. With 10 of the 13 linebackers on the Yotes roster being freshmen, there wasn’t much game experience for coaches to go off of.
But Moroski credits linebackers coach Austin Nelson for being the one to push Leaf’s name up the depth chart. Nelson had been impressed with Leaf’s abilities since the start of fall camp and was confident that he’d be able to step in for the Yotes when called upon.
“During camp he kept showing up, playing physical with a chip on his shoulder,” Nelson said. “In some of the scrimmage scenarios, he came up and made some big plays. I had total faith in him when I saw him pull those plays out. Unfortunately, we have Joey out with an injury, so it’s next man up and Tanner’s been the most consistent guy that’s been in that spot. From what I’ve seen being around him, I knew he was going to do some good things out there.”
But what he saw out of Leaf during the game even surprised him, Nelson admits.
Leaf’s first time showing up on the play sheet came late in the first quarter, when he was able to keep Southern Oregon running back Hykeem Massey from catching a third-down pass. From there, Leaf kept showing up more and more. Both of his sacks came in the fourth quarter — one on third down, the other on fourth.
“It was just time to do my job,” Leaf said about the performance. “I think guys were flushing things to me and spilling things like we were supposed to. I was just trying to fit where I was supposed to fit. That was our game plan going in, get these guys to where we can get a lot of guys to the ball. Luckily I could be one of those guys a lot of the time.”
Leaf and his twin brother, Cooper, joined the Yotes after graduating from Capital High in 2020. With the 2020 season being pushed back to the spring of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shortened to four games, Tanner Leaf opted to play for the Yotes baseball team instead.
But even while making 35 starts and hitting .242 with 16 RBIs, Leaf still made sure to make two or three football practices a week, usually the ones that started at 5:30 a.m. Cooper Leaf, a defensive back, played in three games for the Yotes football team in the spring.
“It was really busy, but I loved every second of it,” said Tanner Leaf. “It was a super good experience. It helped me with time-management stuff, but it was crazy busy.”
That grind was also something that impressed Nelson, who had just come from Caldwell from Fort Lewis College, and had not been a part of the Leaf brothers’ recruiting process. He saw Tanner out at early practices, knowing he wasn’t even going to have a chance to be on the sideline in the spring. That, Nelson said, spoke to the work ethic of both the brothers.
“They just have a crazy work ethic,” Nelson said. “They both kind of play on the edge of being a little to rowdy and a little too physical at times, and you got to reel them back in. But he was full into baseball, loving it, and coming to practice when he could. It’s a testament to them, how they were raised, that great work ethic that they have.”