Tyler Leinberger was angry and frustrated like many when COVID-19 forced the postponement of Virginia’s 2020 high school football season until the spring. But the unplanned hiatus led to a breakthrough for the Thomas Dale High School offensive lineman that turned him into a major college prospect.
“I think that time, honestly, was a blessing for me,” said Leinberger, who became a member of East Carolina’s football recruiting Class of 2022 on July 1. The 6-foot-5, 310-pounder opted for the Pirates after also receiving scholarship offers from Campbell, Massachusetts and Richmond.
Leinberger has been a starter at left tackle for Thomas Dale in Chester, VA, since late in his freshman season, but was “kind of a chubby, long-in-the-arms kid who was always smiling, kind of a goofball a little bit,” according to Dale coach Kevin Tucker.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020 and put the world in a holding pattern, Leinberger received a text message that would lead to a significant step forward in his football career.
Former Florida State center Alex Eberle and ex-Old Dominion center Nick Clarke were starting a new training facility with a focus on offensive linemen in nearby Ashland. The pair offered to work with Leinberger at a time when school facilities and other workout options were closed due to the pandemic.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” Leinberger said of what would become a five-day-a-week regimen of weight lifting, footwork drills and blocking techniques.
“My (weight) numbers shot as high as they’ve ever been,” Leinberger continued. “My bench press, my squat, dead lift all improved in ridiculous numbers. I got faster and my form got better. Honestly, that time from August to January was probably the hardest training I’ve ever done.”
When Thomas Dale finally took the field in the spring, Leinberger looked like a different player, Tucker said.
“He came into the season in the best shape he’s ever been in,” Tucker said. “He transformed his body. His body is now a college body as opposed to a chubbier high school body. He’s not just a fat kid playing the offensive line. He looks like a college football player.”
East Carolina had previously signed defensive end Rick D’Abreu from Thomas Dale in its Class of 2019. So the Pirates were already familiar with Leinberger as the Knights kicked off their 2020 season last February. But a phone call from Tucker alerting the ECU coaching staff about the improvements Leinberger had made wound up earning him an invitation to the school’s “Big Man” camp on June 20. A scholarship offer had been extended to Leinberger by ECU just days before he came to campus for the camp.
Five days after camp, Leinberger returned to Greenville for an official visit where D’Abreu and other Pirates made a lasting impression.
“Everyone was talking to me and making me feel at home,” Leinberger said. “They made me feel special. (Redshirt freshman offensive lineman) Trent Holler is really one guy I interacted with who made me think, ‘This is right. These are the people I want to play with because these are great people.”
D’Abreu, a sophomore who started all nine games last season, also offered positive advice about ECU.
“He definitely helped me out a lot with the decision,” Leinberger said. “I talked to him and asked him a couple of questions. Rick’s awesome, a great guy. So I talked to him. He actually kind of helped push it. He was telling opportunities and things like that around ECU.”
Leinberger could wind up butting heads with his old prep teammate in practice, depending on where he fits in on ECU’s offensive line.
Tucker believes Leinberger can help the Pirates at any of the offensive line positions.
“He’s athletic enough he could play anywhere along the line,” Tucker said. “He snaps some as well, so he could transition into a center. But as far as his pulling ability, I think he could play guard just as easy. He’s a versatile lineman.”
Leinberger is one of five offensive line prospects who have made verbal commitments to East Carolina since June 22.