HOOVER, Ala. — When Leonard Fournette revealed his sartorial choice for SEC Media Days—red pants, tan jacket, red bowtie—LSU offensive tackle Vadal Alexander offered a two-word appraisal. “Leonard,” Alexander said to his star tailback. “Leonard.”
Fournette looked more like one of the Georgia players who also circulated through the Birmingham Hyatt on Thursday morning. It wasn’t the first time the LSU tailback has looked like a Bulldog, though. That came this past Thanksgiving in College Station.
Somewhere in heaven, Larry Munson looked down and muttered, “My God. Another freshman.”
The Fournette-Herschel Walker comparisons extend beyond one eerily similar run. Walker was listed at 6’1” and 218 pounds on the 1980 Georgia roster. Fournette played his freshman year at 6’1”, 230. Both arrived on campus running much faster than their size should allow and carrying much more hype than any college freshman should be asked to shoulder.
The difference? Walker led his team to a national title in ’80. Fournette’s team went 8-5 and 4-4 in the SEC in 2014.
Walker played in a slowed-down era when a dominant back could carry a team to a national title. There were no warp-speed offenses on the other sideline trying to lure those Bulldogs into shootouts. Now? Even if Fournette can turn his similar skill set into numbers resembling those Walker posted in Athens, he’s still going to need help.
Fournette could be the best back in the country. No one else has his combination of size, speed and strength. After curtailing his visits to Raising Canes for chicken fingers in favor of lower-calorie options, Fournette now weighs 225. He feels faster, and the data back him up. LSU has a device that measures its players’ foot speed, and last week Fournette hit a personal-best 21.3 mph. “It’s really crazy,” Alexander said. “A 220-something pound man running as fast as 185-pound DB and stronger than some D-linemen. He’s just a crazy freak of nature.”
But even the most freakish need some assistance. If LSU doesn’t get more from its quarterbacks, opponents will adjust their schemes to smother Fournette. He’s already accustomed to seeing eight- and nine-man boxes. “Yeah,” Fournette said. “We’ve seen plenty of them. Somehow, some way we find a way to get through it.” Except for the times they didn’t. The Tigers rushed for only 89 yards in a home loss to Mississippi State. They rushed for 36 yards on 32 carries in shutout loss at Arkansas. In that game, beat writer Ross Dellenger noted that the Razorbacks had an average of 7.59 players in the box.
Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are competing for the starting quarterback job for the second consecutive season. Harris seems to have a leg up after Jennings was arrested last month and charged with unauthorized entry of a dwelling. According to a police report, Jennings was retrieving items he had reported stolen days earlier. His gaffe may not leave him suspended for any games, but it calls into question his decision-making. That’s fairly important at quarterback. Fournette, for his part, is confident in both players. “It doesn’t matter. They’re both great,” Fournette said. “Whichever one wins the job, they’re going to lead us to the promised land. I know that for a fact.”
On that point, Fournette is probably mistaken. If the Tigers are to reach the promised land, he will lead them there. But he will need assistance from Harris or Jennings. The Tigers must have some semblance of a passing game to keep defenses from loading up for Fournette. If Harris or Jennings can provide that, a back who averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a freshman could post statistics as freakish as his measurables.
Unlike Walker, Fournette did not start his freshman season as his team’s best back. “It wasn’t that easy,” he said. “I thought it was going to be like high school. I had to learn.” Fournette began feeling comfortable in a 30–27 win at Florida. He carried 20 times for 140 yards with two touchdowns.
Fournette still had lessons to learn, though. In that Thanksgiving win at Texas A&M, LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson yanked Fournette from the game and told him to stop dancing. Run north and south, Wilson told his star freshman. You’ve already watched Fournette’s next carry. When he reached Aggies safety Howard Matthews, Fournette faced a choice: Dance or lower his shoulder. You already know which one he chose. “Either he tackles me and I get fussed at,” Fournette remembered thinking, “or I score this touchdown.”
By the Tigers’ season-ending loss to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl, Fournette had found his groove. In that game, he ran for 143 yards and two touchdowns and returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score. But LSU’s offense stalled in the fourth quarter, and Notre Dame drove and kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired.
Fournette wants to pick up where he left off, and if he does, he’ll be in the hunt for the Heisman Trophy. “Certainly, Leonard Fournette might well be worthy of what conversation,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “That's not my focus. Certainly, I hope it’s not his focus because the whole piece is putting the team together and having him do his part. If he just does his part, he'll be in the mix.” Of course, the Heisman Trophy usually goes to players on championship contenders. Players on teams that go .500 in conference play don’t typically get much traction. Fournette isn’t worried about awards, though. “My main focus?” he said. “Championship.”
Even assuming no defensive dropoff after losing coordinator John Chavis and replacing him with Kevin Steele, the Tigers will only compete in a stacked SEC West if they get more from their quarterbacks. In 2011, they rode mediocre quarterback play to a 13–0 start because of a once-in-a-lifetime collection of defensive talent. LSU doesn’t have that now. What the Tigers do have is perhaps the nation’s largest gap between ceiling and floor. They also may have the nation’s best back. But we’ll never know it if he has to fight his way out of an eight-man box every time he touches the ball.