Nov. 25, 1999
LARAMIE, Wyo. -
By Robert Gagliardi, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, University of Wyoming senior freesafety Matt Lehning doesn?t stick out as an intimidating presence on thefootball field.
That is, until he lays one of his patented hits on opposing ball carriers orreceivers.
"He's one of the top two hardest hitters that I've been around," UW headcoach Dana Dimel said. "He's right up there with (safety) Mario Smith who Icoached at Kansas State. Matt hits just has hard as he does, and is probablyeven a little better player.
"Matt is one of the most intense and fierce football players that we've had.You know when he comes up and hits somebody, there?s going to be a massivecollision -- not just a solid one, a massive collision. He intimidatesopponents coming across the middle."
Lehning leads the Pokes this season in tackles with 99 total tackles, whichputs him sixth in the Mountain West Conference. He has three interceptions,has broken up four passes, two quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.Lehning hasn't missed many tackles this season. However, when your freesafety is the leading tackler, and your strong safety, junior Al Rich, isfourth in tackles, that often means they are making stops after theopposition has gotten past the defensive line and linebackers.
"I'm not too worried about the numbers, only about pulling out wins,"Lehning said. "In our scheme, the safeties play a pretty big role in comingup and making quite a few tackles."
Lehning entered the season as a back-up to Rich at free safety. Depthproblems among UW's cornerbacks forced the coaching staff to move seniorsafety Trent Gamble to corner and put Lehning in the starting lineup at freesafety and move Rich to strong safety.
The move has worked out well.
"Matt has just blossomed out there and he keeps getting better and better,"UW secondary coach Mark Stoops said. "I wish I had him another year. I can'tsay enough about his attitude and his leadership. He's knowledgeable and hehas great instincts. Those type of people help you win championships.
"Al and Matt are both very physical and very intense. Trent is the same wayand when you can get those type of players out on the field, that?s abenefit to the team."
A Wyoming win Saturday at San Diego State will give the Pokes a share of theMountain West Conference championship. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. The game will betelevised by ESPN.
Lehning came to UW from Garden City Community College in Garden City, Kan.,which isn't far from his hometown of Sublette, Kan. At Garden City, Lehningled his team to 20 wins in two years, the first time in school history thatwas accomplished. Lehning recorded 106 tackles and intercepted four passesduring his sophomore season.
Dimel said Lehning is a guy who brings more than just hard hits to the UWdefense.
"He's also gotten better at playing the deep ball at free safety," Dimelsaid. "Of all the deep balls we've given up this season, none have been anyof his responsibility. He's one of those guys who's very versatile. He'sbeen so good at stopping the run and tackling, but he's also got good atpass defense."
Despite his versatility, Lehning is best-known for his hard hits. However,Lehning said he concentrates on the fundamentals -- not making a big hit --when he's on the field.
"Nothing much is going through my mind when I make a hit," Lehning said.
"The main thing I want to do is make sure I get them down. Whether it's ahard hit or a wrap-up tackle, as long as they come down that's all thatmatters."
However, Lehning's teammates and coaches notice when he makes a big hit.
"He came in for me during a game last season and just took this guy's headoff," Rich recalled. "The guy was just laying there. Matt hit him so hard hekind of injured his shoulder on the hit. The corner got out of the wayhoping Matt wasn't going to hit him, too. It was devastating. You could hearthe crack up through the stands."
Added Stoops, "There's not one play that sticks out in my mind, but I knowthere are many. Every game he plays he does something like that."