Leone and Ward: The Redblacks’ Superb Special Teams Duo
The Redblacks’ special teams unit has been particularly special so far this season. At the forefront of the unit’s performance is the team’s dynamic specialist duo: punter Richie Leone and kicker Lewis Ward.
Both reside at (or near) the top of the leader board in their respective positions’ statistical categories. Leone is currently second in the CFL in punt average and Ward is the league’s best kicker in both total field goals made and field goal percentage.
Redblacks' special teams coordinator Bob Dyce says their success has not been a shock to him.
“I’m not surprised by either of them. If you have been watching practice, they are truly professionals,” said Dyce.
They have shared success in 2018, but their respective journeys to get to the Redblacks differ greatly. One is on his sixth roster in the last five years, while the other is getting his first taste of professional football.
Leone has been around the continent since finishing his time with the University of Houston. There have been NFL stops in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Arizona.
“It’s been a fun ride. I have gotten a little taste of everything, but I’ll tell you what, I would love to plant some roots down,” said Leone.
Bookended by brief time spent with the Steelers and Cardinals is Leone’s impressive two-year stretch with the BC Lions. The Georgia-native was named to the CFL All-Star team in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons, his only two full CFL seasons, cementing his position as the league’s top punter. Intent on a CFL return, Leone signed with the Redblacks in April for the 2018 season.
“This is probably the best locker room I have been a part of,” said Leone.
Leone has always put up big punting yardage numbers in the CFL, but Dyce says he has seen improvement in Leone’s ability to not give up punt singles this season. Leone had tallied the CFL’s most punt singles in 2016 and the second-most in 2015 with the Lions. He has only scored one punt single so far this season.
“He’s really on me because he knows I was just trying to boost my average in the past,” said Leone on Dyce pressuring him to pin punts deep near the opponent’s goal line.
“It can be a huge advantage. You put a coach Thorpe defense out there getting to defend 95 yards and I feel pretty good about that.”
Not only is Leone the Ottawa punter, he performs kickoff and holding duties for the Redblacks. Along with long-snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa, Leone is part of the CFL’s top field goal unit.
Rookie Lewis Ward has garnered league wide attention for his 2018 performance, culminating in his week seven selection as a CFL Top Performer. Ward went seven for seven on his field goal attempts in that week seven win over Hamilton. It was a perfect game for the Kingston-native in a nearly perfect season thus far.
Through seven games, Ward is connecting on a CFL – best 95.7% of his field goal attempts while leading the league in field goal makes. That percentage is bolstered by the Ottawa kicker’s current streak of 19 straight field goals. Ward is on a torrid kicking pace, having not missed an attempt since the season-opener against Saskatchewan.
“He has given me a lot of confidence being here,” said Ward of coordinator Dyce. “He holds me accountable to our standard here and that’s a pretty big deal.”
Ward is no stranger to the Ottawa sports scene. A five-year starter at the University of Ottawa, Ward finished as the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Gee-Gees’ program.
“Coming in being signed, I knew it was going to be a competition right off the bat and that this wasn’t going to be given to me. Going through my career in university, nothing was ever given to me. I pride myself on that I guess,” said Ward.
In sports however, there always seems to be room for improvement, especially following a loss. Dyce says they focus on getting better on a game-by-game basis. He notes the recent improvement in the return game, but also the kick coverage struggles that showed in last Thursday’s loss to the Argonauts.
“The coverage-game up until last game, I thought we had been outstanding. We had a couple slip-ups with regards to leverage,” said Dyce. “We just have to take care of what we are supposed to do and not worry about the opponent.”
Unprompted, Leone points to the most recent game as well when asked about his 2018 performance.
“Tough days happen. This past week wasn’t my best day. I left a lot on the field, but I’m itching to get back on the field this Saturday,” said Leone.
The Redblacks’ special teams unit will have the chance to continue their success when they host the Montreal Alouettes this Saturday night.