Leber scores prestigious award

Leber scores prestigious award
Vermillion football standout Ben Leber, who spent the first four seasons of his pro career with the San Diego Chargers, has emerged as one of the keys to a Vikings defense that ranks among the best teams in run defense. His efforts have earned the linebacker Celebrity of the Year honors from the South Dakota Sportswriters Association.

For Leber, the decision to go to Minnesota was a business decision, but one that has had emotional bonuses. "I love it," he said. "I love the fact that I get to see my parents. I love the opportunity to stay in contact with some people, to run into random high school mates. It's fun to be back in the element that made me who I am."

Leber needed a little time to feel at home in the Vikings' defense, but has excelled as the season progressed. He currently has 33 tackles, three sacks and career-bests with three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, five passes defended and an interception. He also scored his first career touchdown in the Vikings' Oct. 8 game with Detroit.

"I think the year started a little slow," he said. "Once I got in the groove of playing, I feel I've played fairly well from the middle to the end of the season."

Part of the transition came in the way he was utilized. "For the last two years, I was an on-the-ball defender 100 percent of the time," Leber said. "It took me a while to adjust."

Leber credits both his adjustment to the Vikings' system and the coaching staff's understanding of their personnel for both his overall improvement and the team's improvement against the run.

"I'm used to playing on the ball, so they have me blitzing more," he said. "It's not something they did just for me, but for the other linebackers as well. They are figuring out each player's assets and how best to utilize them."

The result has been a run defense that has produced some record-breaking performances. Through 15 games, the Vikings have allowed just 817 yards on the ground, over 350 fewer than second-ranked Baltimore (1,175 yards) and over 600 fewer than the next-best NFC team, Chicago (1,493).

"It's not like we're playing perfect run defense. It's just a lot of hustle," he said. "Our run defense is a product of hustle and determination more than anything else."

The Vikings, though, have not lived up to expectations, something Leber blames on a lack of focus. "As a team, we feel like we've underachieved. We were 4-2 at the break (bye week). We thought we had a lot of weapons on both sides of the ball," he said. "But we've had some discipline problems on both sides of the ball, some penalties at costly times. We wish we could have done better for (head coach Brad) Childress in his first year."

With a 6-9 record and just the regular season finale with the St. Louis Rams remaining, the Vikings are out of playoff contention. But Leber feels the team can set the tone for 2007 with a good showing Sunday.

"This game will show our true character. We are playing for pride, for the character of your name and your team," he said. "We want to get a winning taste in our mouth."

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