Rodney McLeod owes a lot to Dennard Wilson.
Including the No. 23.
Back in 2012, when McLeod made the Rams’ roster as an undrafted rookie, he did so wearing No. 38. That’s when Wilson went to McLeod with some sage advice: Go to the equipment manager and tell him you want to switch.
“I don’t know any better so I said, ‘You can do that?’” McLeod recalled on Monday to NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
McLeod was given the choice between 23 and 25 and he chose the former. He has now worn that number for all nine of his seasons in the NFL, the last five in Philadelphia. He chose 23 because that’s the number he wore as a freshman at DeMatha Catholic High School, which is where the relationship between McLeod and Wilson began.
Wilson, 38, graduated from DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Maryland, eight years before McLeod. And after an impressive career at the University of Maryland and a brief cup of coffee in the NFL, Wilson returned to coach defensive backs at DeMatha, where a young sophomore named Rodney McLeod was already starting to turn heads.
Several years later, when McLeod signed with the Rams after going undrafted out of Virginia, he teamed up again with Wilson, who had taken a job as a quality control coach in St. Louis that offseason. After four years together, McLeod left to sign with the Eagles. And five years after that, he’s being reunited with Wilson again.
The Eagles last week hired Wilson to be their new defensive backs coach on Nick Sirianni’s coaching staff.
“I was in disbelief,” McLeod said. “I never thought I would have another opportunity to (play) underneath him. So when I saw the news, I was thrilled to have him in our room, now a part of this organization and team. And understating who we’re going to get to lead our group.
“I’m very familiar with him, obviously, but he holds everyone accountable, holds guys to the standard and it doesn’t really matter who you are, treats everyone the same. He respects guys in the room. I think everyone will respond well to him and I think he’ll help us out a lot.”
McLeod is busy rehabbing from a torn ACL — it’s going well, by the way — but he’s under contract and expects to return for his sixth season with the Eagles in 2021. McLeod really stepped into his role as a veteran leader last season.
And now he’s already answering his teammates’ questions about Wilson, who will be their third defensive backs coach in three years.
“I’ve talked to Marcus Epps. I told him the one thing about Dennard, he understands the game from a player’s perspective,” McLeod said. “He’s played at every level, been around some of the best and knows what it takes to get us to where we want to be as a secondary. Like I said, he has a good heart and everything about him is technique-driven. He’s going to harp on that and make sure that that is first and foremost.”
Technique is something that Wilson has always stressed, according to McLeod. He remembers that as something he learned back in high school during his first stint under Wilson. Learning about technique and concepts from someone who had just finished a high-level college career gave McLeod’s young career a major boost.
That base of knowledge has served McLeod well in the NFL, where everyone is talented. He thinks technique is something that separates players from their competition.
In the few days since Wilson was hired, he and McLeod have exchanged texts. McLeod told his mentor he couldn’t believe it. The next questions is whether or not Wilson will be bringing his cleats to Philly.
McLeod remembers back at DeMatha when Wilson was still a young coach and would wear his cleats for practice every day to show his players he still had it. The more McLeod thought about it, he came up with an answer. The cleats will probably stay in Wilson’s trunk until someone challenges him.
“To this day, he always believes he has a rep in him, which I like,” McLeod said. “I like the confidence that Dennard has and that he will instill upon others.”
Dennard will be coaching under first-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon with the Eagles. McLeod has been trying to learn more about Gannon and even asked his buddy Anthony Harris from Minnesota for the lowdown. McLeod thinks the scheme will be a blend of Gannon’s last two jobs, with the Colts and Vikings.
McLeod is 30 now but is happy about the “fresh start and new energy” that this young coaching staff will bring.
But he’s really pumped to play again for a guy he considers a mentor.
“I owe Dennard a lot, man,” McLeod said. “I tell him that all the time.”
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