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Former Dino star Deane Leonard adjusting to life in the SEC with Ole Miss Rebels

It's certainly been an eventful transition for Deane Leonard.

The two-time All-Canadian defensive back with the Calgary Dinos is in his first season at Ole Miss. He transferred there during the off-season after the COVID-19 pandemic forced U Sports to cancel its 2020 campaign.

The six-foot-two, 195-pound Calgary native is a second-team player on a Rebels defence that's allowed 1,201 yards and 92 points in its first two games of the year. And it doesn't get any easier as Ole Miss (1-1) takes on No. 2 Alabama (2-0) on Saturday.

John Metchie III, of Brampton, Ont., had five receptions for 181 yards and two TDs in leading the Crimson Tide past No. 13 Texas A&M 52-24 last Saturday.

"They're like a track team back there," Leonard told reporters this week during a videoconference. "They're fast, they're agile, they can really do it all."

But at least Leonard can prepare safe in the knowledge that he'll be able to continue his transition to life in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference. He didn't receive clearance from SEC officials to play until just before the Rebels' season-opening 51-35 loss to Florida on Sept. 26.

"It's pretty frustrating," Leonard said. "You go to practice every day and you give it your all but you don't know if you'll actually be able to go out on the field.

"I kind of approached the week with the mindset that I was going to play so it wasn't too much of a change. But, yeah, it was good to hear that at that point."

And it wasn't long before Leonard - who led Canada West with four interceptions last year, returning two for TDs for the Vanier Cup-champion Dinos - understood he wasn't in U Sports anymore. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask threw for 416 yards and six TDs while Kyle Pitts, a six-foot-six, 246-pound tight end, had eight catches for 170 yards and four TDs.

"That's something I didn’t really have experience with how athletic the guys are — both in speed and size," Leonard said. "Playing against Florida, going against Pitts, I've never seen anything like that in my three years at university."

Still, Lane Kiffin, the University of Mississippi's first-year head coach, has high hopes for Leonard. Last month, Kiffin said Leonard, "looks every bit like an NFL player."

"It's a reminder that I'm doing what I need to be doing day in and day out," Leonard said. "It's just motivation to keep on pushing forward through the season."

Leonard certainly has a pedigree for professional football. His father, Kenton, was also a defensive back with the Calgary Stampeders (1991-97). He earned a Grey Cup ring with the franchise in 1992.

"That first half (versus Florida) was big, it was a learning experience, for sure," Deane Leonard said. "I was slipping everywhere but I think what that game told me is I was in position for all those plays and I can compete with them.

"I still feel like I've got a long way to go, I just need to get a feel for the game. Everything is a little bit different. The splits are tighter, this is really my first month playing press. There's a big learning curve and I feel like I'm just on the uprising of it."

However, at least Leonard isn't making the transition alone. Tavius Robinson, a six-foot-seven, 245-pound Guelph, Ont., native and former Gryphons defensive lineman, also transferred to Ole Miss this off-season. The two are roommates and Leonard said it's certainly helped having another Canadian who's also adjusting to life in Mississippi, on and off the field.

"It's nice having another guy in a similar situation," he said. "Even past football, coming to Mississippi, there's a big cultural difference and having another Canadian guy to be there is pretty big.

"Moving to Mississippi in general is just a cultural difference. Everyone is just a little bit different than you are and it just takes some time to adjust to."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2020.