AMES — Matt Leo looks like an incredible football player.
Iowa State’s senior defensive end is 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds.
Coach Matt Campbell has described Leo’s physique with phrases such as, “His body looks like it was chiseled from marble,” “He looks like a Greek God,” and “He looks like a WWE wrestler.”
Essentially, his muscles have muscles and his jawline looks like it could cut diamond.
The problem is, just because a person looks the part, doesn’t mean they can play the part.
Leo hails from Adelaide, Australia, and moved to the U.S. to play football. He got his first taste at Arizona Western Community College and after two years there, committed to Iowa State over Oklahoma, Arizona, Mississippi State and Central Florida.
He redshirted his initial season and played in all 13 games last year for Iowa State, recording 19 tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks.
This season, while his stats are similar to last season’s, he’s much more comfortable and Campbell has seen an improved Leo.
“I pick 10 to 15 plays after a game to show the team, and one of the plays was Matt on one of the third-down plays from last Saturday against Texas,” Campbell said. “The physicality that he shows on this play — the ability to snap his hat and hands, his ability to shed the blocker and make the play — it was a third-and-1 play and it was all Matt Leo. Just that play embodies the amount of growth that he’s been able to make. It’s been remarkable.
“We see Matt as this physical Greek god that he looks like. But learning to play the sport of football in such a short amount of time has been a great challenge. Matt has done everything above and beyond the call of duty to practice and get himself to this point to become a great player. The passion he’s had — obviously you have to really want to do something to make the sacrifices that he’s had to make to get to this point. He’s been an unbelievable asset to this program.”
Leo came from playing Australian rules football, which resembles rugby a lot more than it does American football. Details like gap assignment and timing the snap are two things he didn’t have to worry about playing Australian rules football.
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It didn’t take Leo long to figure out that they were things he needed to understand. But it did take him a while to actually learn how to do that in practice.
“You learn quick that just because you’re fast, physical and strong doesn’t mean you can be good at football,” Leo said. “It’s all about detail and timing — you can’t waste a step. It’s so much to work on. It really makes me appreciate the game. No one in Australia understands how hard and complex this game really is. To finally put the pieces of the puzzle together and make plays this season is a blessing.
“Once you see how a wasted step puts you outside of gap, that’s when you realize how hard it is and how much details matter.”
Leo said his growth was gradual, but it got to a point where he knew what to do and when do it, he just wasn’t doing it because he wasn’t confident.
“I knew that I knew what I was doing and that I needed to trust in that and believe that I could do it,” Leo said. “I let off the chains and trusted that I knew my assignment.”
That’s when it turned around for Leo.
Campbell has recognized how much growth the senior has made.
“Matt’s journey is unique, Matt’s a guy that has worked really, really hard here and to be really, really good,” Campbell said. “Matt certainly has great talent — you visually see him and you go, ‘Ah, that guy is a good football player.’ Yet, there is so much more to being a good football player.
“The time and the effort that Matt has put into his craft to become a good football player has been so rewarding to see. When this team has needed him the most, Matt’s been able to give it.”
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