You already know that Leonard Fournette is outstanding as a runner. But what else do scouts want to see from the star tailback? I asked, and then spent Saturday watching Fournette do everything else
GREEN BAY — At this time of year, only a handful of NFL prospects are household names. In 2016, Leonard Fournette tops the list. LSU’s junior running back has been lauded as the next Adrian Peterson—since he was in Pop Warner.
“He’s a rare talent,” says an NFL evaluator. “He’s explosive, he rarely goes down after first contact, and his spin move….”
Surely, by now you’ve seen highlights of the 6'1", 235-pound back leveling would-be tacklers, whirling through even the most claustrophobic clusters. Fournette’s value as a college player is indisputable. Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College sports economist, told CBS Sports that Fournette would be worth $2 million to $4 million if college players were paid. His projection as a pro is even more exciting. It’s why Fournette has taken out two separate $10 million insurance policies.
With premiere exposure in the SEC and universal praise for Fournette from scouts, NFL teams are counting down the remaining seconds on his eligibility clock, right? “When guys are already being described as sure first-round picks, they are still going to be scrutinized,” says one NFL evaluator. “Maybe even more.”
If an NFL team deems Fournette a potential franchise-defining prospect, it will send a scout to watch him play live at least once this season. It’s part of the limited recon to be done this time of year, and the report will help general managers shape their decision (along with combine results, background interviews, and general philosophies on drafting running backs). Here are a few things they will look for: How does he interact with teammates and coaches on the sidelines? How does he react after a bad play? Does he celebrate big plays? What is he doing when he doesn't have the ball? Does the team trust him to block on third-down passing situations? How is he as a blocker?
I was at Lambeau Field on Saturday but I didn’t really watch LSU fall to Wisconsin 16-14. I watched Fournette. Only Fournette, for nearly five hours. With binoculars pretty much plastered on my face, I followed Fournette from the moment he stepped onto the field for pregame warmups at 1:10 p.m. to when he walked off the field at 5:59 in a sea of dejected yellow and purple. (Fournette was not made available for interviews after the game.)
I noticed a few things about the running back. Until the final sequence, he was on the field for all but one of LSU’s offensive snaps. He rarely talked to anyone on the sideline; Fournette conversed with a coach, one-on-one, just once. During most of the Tigers’ defensive series, he sat on the bench in silence. On the field, he doesn’t shy from contact. He is damn explosive when he can create even an inch of open space. He is even an eager tackler.
Below is my diary—along with context from evaluators—from Saturday’s game. Fournette rushed for 138 yards in the season opener. Here is everything the running back did besides that.
Note: All times Central
1:10 p.m.—Walks onto the field, wearing yellow shorts, gray shirt. Sees an LSU fan in the stands shouting his name. Points to man, who waves back, then jogs to end zone.
1:12—Plays catch with teammate Rickey Jefferson. Fournette motions that he wants overthrows. Makes four one-handed catches in a row.
1:30—Returns to field in full uniform. Fields punts. Three-man ESPN camera crew shadows him, about a foot away.
1:32—Drops one punt. (Didn’t look like he was ready for it.)
1:37—ESPN camera crew with him again, now about six inches from his face while he fields kicks. On first rep, makes strong cut toward ball and it slips through his hands. Catches the next.
1:40—Group of wideouts and running backs gather at 50 yard line to run routes. Fournette is first in the group. Running at about 50 percent, drops first pass.
1:43—Walks through the end zone after another route. Waves at LSU student band; they wave back.
1:45—Catches another ball. Met at 50 yard line by trainer, who hands him a towel. Takes off helmet and wipes his head. ESPN camera about six inches from his face. Chats with fellow running backs at midfield.
Says a scout: “You definitely pay closer attention to certain players in higher-stakes games. With a national audience, can he handle the pressure?”
1:47—Puts his helmet back on. Ready to join new QB drill. Taps ESPN cameraman on shoulder, motioning him to move out of the way of drill.
2:00—Practices handoffs with starting offensive line and quarterback.
2:10—Team heads inside. Fournette is last player off the field, and walks closest to sideline. He high-fives fans along the way, including several young boys hanging over the tunnel.
2:35—He is first player out of the tunnel. (The 70/30 pro-Wisconsin crowd greets LSU players with boos.) Fournette waves his arms to the LSU sideline, motioning for cheers.
2:38—Does elaborate handshake with linebacker Michael Divinity Jr.
2:39—While captains are on field for coin toss, Fournette roams sideline by himself. Walks over to end zone, kneels and bows head for 45 seconds.
Says a scout: “I always watch pregame but I’m not sure there’s anything a player could do that would really bring down their stock. I mean, you don’t want to see them hot-dogging out there.”
2:42—LSU kicks off. Fournette sits on first bench for entire Wisconsin drive.
2:47—Wisconsin punts. (Despite his warmup, Fournette does not return punts or kicks during the game.)
2:51—Takes field with offense for first drive. Pumps arms up toward LSU section.
2:51—High-fives fullback J.D. Moore, who blocked for him on first run.
2:55—On third-and-3, quarterback Brandon Harris loses yardage on a designed run in which LSU fakes a jet sweep for which Fournette would have been the lead blocker. Fournette delivers solid block on defensive back away from the play. He watches replay on large screen as he walks back to bench.
3:01—LSU defense holds Wisconsin on fourth down. Some players on sideline celebrate; Fournette does not react. He picks up helmet and heads right to huddle.
Says a scout: “You want a guy who is passionate but it’s never good if he visibly gets too high or too low after a big play.”
3:03—In pass protection, Fournette chips the defensive end rushing from the right side. Pass is incomplete to the left.
3:04—Play-action to Fournette. After the play fake, he steps forward to block but loses his footing and falls back on his butt.
3:05—Aligned to Harris’s right in the shotgun, Fournette moves across the formation to pick up a blitzer. However, the rusher beats him on an inside move, and Fournette is forced to reach and grab him. The pressure forces Harris to leave the pocket, and the QB throws incomplete.
Evaluating running backs as pass blockers is tricky. Few teams will spend a high pick on a running back who can’t stay on the field on passing downs. Yet many college systems are basic in protection schemes and don’t ask the primary ball-carriers to do a lot of pass protection. Explains one high-ranking NFL front office evaluator: “We always look at the pass protection aspect pretty closely, but we also give most players the benefit of the doubt due to the type of system they had in college.”
3:23—LSU offense back on field. Play-action right to Fournette, who sets up to pass protect while that side of the Wisconsin defense drops. (LSU gets 10 yards on a defensive holding penalty.)
3:25—Play-action to Fournette, who then moves out to the left flat where he is well covered.
3:27—On a third-and-7, play-action to Fournette, who then goes into a short route in the middle of the field, where zone defenders are waiting. Harris is sacked.
3:29—Sitting alone on bench.
3:40—Backup Derrius Guice carries on a jet sweep to the right, after which Harris fakes a hand-off to Fournette up the middle. Guice fumbles, Wisconsin recovers. Fournette jogs directly to bench after whistle. Doesn’t interact with anyone.
3:53—Play-action. After the fake, Fournette chips an already neutralized defensive tackle on his way out to the right flat.
Says the evaluator regarding pass blocking: “Intelligence is just as important an element to have as physical size/strength because there is always a learning curve for young backs learning pass protection schemes.”
3:55—LSU timeout. Fournette is in middle of sideline huddle right in front of coach.
3:59—Refs come in for measurement on fourth down (a Fournette carry). Fournette is standing on side of Wisconsin players, and ref asks him to stand on other side by his teammates.
4:00—Measurement is short. Takes off helmet and walks slowly back to bench. Two assistant coaches come over and tap him on head for encouragement.
4:06—Play-action, after which he halfheartedly chips a defensive tackle.
4:07—Play-action, after which he lowers his shoulder and slows down a defensive end who had beaten his blocker to the inside. He’s pushed back two yards, but buys Harris an extra second or two. Ball is intercepted. As Wisconsin defender returns interception, Fournette sprints across the field, keeps his balance as he’s blocked by a defensive back and makes a clean tackle on the sideline.
4:08—Halftime. Fournette walks into tunnel looking up at video replay. Kneels near entrance of tunnel to watch final part of play before getting up and walking in.
4:32—On third-and-6, lines up to Harris’s right in shotgun. Runs initial route into right flat, then cuts upfield as Harris scrambles right. Makes hands catch on the run, but is brought down on ankle tackle two yards short of the first.
4:35—Wisconsin scores touchdown. On long touchdown review, Fournette stands on the sideline, alone. Stares at grass.
4:37—Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron joins Fournette on sideline. Cameron goes over something on call sheet. Fournette demonstrates a play with his body. They talk for about 90 seconds.
Says a scout: “I always make note of how a player interacts with coaches. What does the tone of the conversation look like? Does he seem receptive?”
4:46—Fournette called off the field after three straight runs. Kneels on the sideline, breathing heavily.
4:48—LSU calls timeout. Fournette was only out for one play, and now will come back in.
4:50—Linebacker times A-gap blitz perfectly, getting to Harris before Harris can hand it to Fournette, forcing collision between Harris, Fournette and defender as Harris fumbles. Fournette dives on ball to smother it.
4:51—Empty backfield. Fournette lines up as wingback on right side of formation, pushes edge rusher past the pocket.
4:55—Fournette is standing on the sideline with defense on field. LSU intercepts and returns for touchdown. Fournette pumps fist.
4:59—Fournette back to sitting on bench this defensive series.
5:02—Play-action to Fournette, who then fakes as if he’s going into the left flat, then sprints past a linebacker and up the left sideline. Makes catch against his chest as he’s upended by defensive back. Thirty-one-yard gain.
Says a scout: “Take note of if he makes catches out of the backfield. You also want to evaluate if this is a back you can incorporate in other aspects of your offense. It’s not only is this guy making catches but how polished are his routes?”
5:03—Next play, LSU scores on a touchdown, a quick snap and bubble screen to receiver Travin Dural. Fournette walks to sideline and pumps arms up to fans to encourage noise. Returns to bench, slaps hands with several teammates and coaches on way.
5:10—Play-action to Fournette, who helps fullback stand up defensive end who had beaten his man to the inside. Lands late second block on inside linebacker who had looped around to outside.
5:33—Play-action to Fournette, who goes down after his feet get tangled with his own lineman. QB is sacked for loss of 1.
Says a scout: “In college, the primary ball-carrier isn’t often asked to pass block a whole lot. We keep that under consideration.”
5:34— Screen left for Fournette, who catches and pivots upfield. Linebacker beats one of his blockers, and Fournette brought down well short of the first.
Says a scout: “Stamina is another thing I look for. You want a guy to be playing with the same intensity in the first quarter as he is in the fourth quarter.”
5:43—Wisconsin hits 47-yard field goal to go up 16-14 with 3:46. Fournette watches from bench on big screen. Barely reacts.
5:48—Play-action to Fournette, who chips defensive tackle who is already out of play.
5:49—Play-action to Fournette, who slips into left flat and is open but is not targeted.
5:49—Lines up to Harris’s right in shotgun. Spots blitzing corner, mirrors and neutralizes him.
5:50—Delays, then moves through the middle of the line for a short pattern, is not targeted.
5:50—Favors left ankle after being tackled. Limps off field, assisted by trainers.
5:51—Sitting on the ground. Trainers tending to left ankle.
5:52—Motions to coaches to let him back in.
Says a scout: “Three things I’m always thinking about with running backs: Durability, competitive nature, toughness.”
5:53—Walking on sideline by himself.
5:53—Harris throws game-ending interception.
5:54—Kneeling by himself at the end of the sideline.
5:59—Jogs back inside, in middle of group of players.
* * *
PICK MY GUY
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Detroit offensive lineman Taylor Decker hyping his former line mate (and roommate) from Ohio State, Pat Elflein.
“In 2013, he had played the last two games of that season, played in the Big Ten Championship game, but didn’t get to play in the Orange Bowl. He knew he had a chance to get a starting spot next season. So the day we got back from the Orange Bowl, he goes, ‘Let’s go do squats, work out, do something.’ We were supposed to be off, and not doing anything. Pat wanted to get back to work right away, and build on a little momentum from the end of the year. We actually got in trouble for being in the weight room, but if an NFL team needs to know anything about Pat, it’s that. This season he’s sliding back to center, which is a position I think he’ll play in the NFL, and I have total confidence he’ll kick butt at it. From everything I’ve learned about the draft process and the NFL, I expect him to get drafted pretty high.”
THE ANONYMOUS SCOUT
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
Dan Feeney, G, Indiana: Thought he might come out last year. Long arms and good punch. Light on his feet and good agility for his size. Road grader. Plays a little nasty. Should stay on interior line as pro.
DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State: Would like to see him add a few more moves off the edge and develop as pass rusher. Not quick twitch guy. Solid in run game.
Sidney Jones, CB, Washington: A lot of talent on this roster, but he is the top. Ballhawk and natural playmaker. Could add some bulk.
Jeremy Sprinkle, TE, Arkansas: Same system that produced Hunter Henry and he possesses a lot of the same qualities. Great size, could improve inline blocking.
FACTOID OF THE WEEK
Houston will give coach Tom Herman a $5 million bonus if the school joins a Power 5 conference. The hottest coach in the country might have incentive to stay—and upgrade on a new set of diamond grills.
In a new segment, former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior match-ups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week
Arkansas OT Dan Skipper vs. TCU DE James McFarland (7 p.m.): Skipper (6-foot-10, 319 pounds) started eight games as a freshman at right guard before moving to left tackle. In 2015, he lined up as the Hogs’ right tackle, but is returning to left tackle this year. He’s an extremely tall-framed blocker who has improved his overall agility and movement skills over his career. A footnote: he’s also blocked four kicks on special teams.
McFarland (6-foot-2, 250-pounds) missed all of 2015 with a foot injury that required surgery. In his 2016 debut against South Dakota State, he recorded five tackles and a sack. With fellow senior Josh Carraway at the opposite end, I think TCU may have the one of the best pass rushing bookends in the country.
And the best of the rest…
Central Michigan QB Cooper Rush vs. Oklahoma State FS Jordan Sterns
N.C. State CB Jack Tocho vs. East Carolina WR Zay Jones
North Carolina OT Jon Heck vs. Illinois DE Dawuane Smoot
WHAT I’M WATCHING THIS WEEK
All times Eastern…
No. 13 Louisville at Syracuse (Thursday, 8 p.m.): Louisville is stocked with future NFL talent on defense. I’m curious to check out outside linebacker Devonte Fields, who is built like (6-foot-4, 245-and-jacked) and has produced like a top-tier pass rusher. The Orange are undergoing an offensive face lift under new coach Dino Babers, whose name might be familiar in New England: Babers groomed Jimmy Garoppolo for his junior and senior seasons at Eastern Illinois.
Penn State at Pittsburgh (Saturday, noon): I promise, I won’t pick my Nittany Lions every week. But this is a game 16 years in the making. Yinz know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever spent time in Western Pa. Here’s the skinny on Penn State: Christian Hackenberg is gone, but the offense should be more dynamic in 2016. Running back Saquon Barkley is a stud.
Arkansas at No. 15 TCU (Saturday, 7 p.m.): Both teams struggled in what should have been easy Week 1 match ups. I was told the Horned Frogs defense was supposed to be impressive. Let’s see if they can rebound after giving up 41 points and 333 passing yards to an FCS opponent (yeesh).
I didn’t visit a campus this week, but I did spend a solid amount of time on Saturday roaming tailgates at Lambeau Field. The rare SEC game up North provided a mashup of regional rituals. Some blend better than others. A lovely LSU fan, Shelly Jones, offered me her Lambeaux Jumbeauxlaya. A sucker for puns (and jambalaya) I couldn’t say no. She had lugged two coolers of fresh shrimp and catfish on her 16-hour odyssey from Shreveport, La. to Green Bay and had planned on adding a Wisconsin delicacy, bratwurst, in lieu of andouille. This all sounded great to me as she scooped a large ladle into a styrofoam bowl. Then she told me the kicker. The next-door tailgaters heard of her concoction and insisted on upping its Wisconsin-ness: add cheese curds! They brought her a tray to mix in. How I’d describe it: an incredibly salty, incredibly un-kosher bite of indulgence. Overall not terrible, but like I told Shelly: I think I’d rather try her jambalaya next time I visit Louisiana, in its original state.
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