LSU’s Leonard Fournette: One Of The Nation’s Best College Football Players

College Football: LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette, a Heisman Trophy candidate, is having a season for the ages:   

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Via Ivan Maisel of ESPN:

BATON ROUGE, La. — Forgive me for what I am about to write. In the age of hyperbole, when social and traditional media combine to whip you into a frenzy over what once barely merited a headline, what I am about to say might sound devalued. If everything is the Greatest or the Most or All-Time, then nothing is. A new television show is called “Best Time Ever,” which, for most of us, I’m pretty sure would not include a television show.

Leonard Fournette is a running back, an LSU sophomore, and he leads the FBS in rushing and in Heisman votes in October. He has started the season well. With most running backs, that description would suffice.

So forgive me for writing a story that reads like ESPN.com just got T-boned by Buzzfeed. Forgive me for preaching gospel sourced in feel and potential and wonder and three football games. In each of them, Fournette has rushed for more than 200 yards. No one in the history of the Southeastern Conference — neither Herschel nor Bo nor running backs with last names — had ever done that.

But what we have on our hands is bigger than one record. I am here to tell you, as sure as purple goes with gold, as sure as cochon and gumbo are the quintessential tailgate food, as sure as the opposite of stop is geaux, that Fournette is different.

It’s not just that Fournette is averaging 216 yards per game for the No. 7 Tigers. It’s how much better that is than everyone else. Fournette is averaging 56 yards per game more than the second-best guy in the FBS, Tyler Ervin of San Jose State. That’s the biggest margin since Barry Sanders rewrote the record book in 1988, when he rushed for 2,628 yards and beat the runner-up by 85 yards per game. No rushing champion since Sanders has won by an average margin greater than 31 yards.

Let’s not get too far into numbers. You don’t need numbers to describe why Fournette is different, although Syracuse coach Scott Shafer did a nice job of it. Fournette filleted the Orange for 244 yards in the Tigers’ 34-24 victory on Sept. 26. He had another 112 yards called back because of penalties.

Those aren’t the numbers Shafer used. Asked what impressed him from the sideline, Shafer said, “His size and ability to move like a 5-10, 200-pound kid. That’s it. He moves like a lot of little guys move.”

Fournette is no little guy. He is 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, and a guy who moves the way he moves at that size is different.

“He can make them miss,” LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “Or he can make them wish they hadn’t found him.”

So forgive me. If faith is belief without evidence, forgive this faith-based initiative. But here goes:

Fournette is different the way that Bryce Harper is different, the way that Jordan Spieth is different, the way that — I’m going to go ahead and make the leap — LeBron is different. Harper, the 22-year-old outfielder and National League MVP favorite of the Washington Nationals, Spieth, the 22-year-old PGA Tour Player of the Year, and LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet, all share the same traits.

Each of those three professional athletes, born with preternatural talent, succeeded anyway. All of them, saddled with oversized expectations in high school, ignored the seductions of attention and money to chase greatness. That is harder to do than it sounds. For one thing, everyone wants to be great, right up until they see the workload it entails. For another, it’s easy to settle for being better than everyone else. It’s a commitment to decide to be the best you can be.

And that’s what makes Fournette different, from the top of his shaved head (a duty performed by his hometown barber, who drives more than an hour to Baton Rouge every Thursday to do the job) to his size-14 cleats. He doesn’t settle. He decided a long time ago that he would chase greatness, and the way it looks from here, he is closing the gap.

“We all dream,” LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson said. “Here’s a kid that had these lofty dreams of winning a Heisman and becoming a pro, and his physical traits and his mindset may allow him to fulfill those.”

I know what you’re thinking: All this because after five weeks he leads the nation in rushing? I mean, Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin rushed for the second-most yards in FBS history last season and all he brought to mind was … Melvin Gordon.

Like LeBron, Harper and Spieth, Fournette is appointment television. You learn to plan your snack runs and bathroom breaks when they aren’t playing. In his first four games this season, Fournette already has 11 rushes of at least 20 yards, including touchdowns of 75, 62 and 40 yards. He also promises the possibility of those runs against Auburn, when he slung would-be tacklers away as if they were Hollywood extras in a bad college football movie.

“I bounced off him a couple of times,” Syracuse safety Rodney Williams said. “I felt like I wrapped up fairly well. … I thought I had tackled him, and I saw him running 20 more yards.”

Asked what it’s like to fill a hole that Fournette is approaching, Williams used the F-word: “You just got to come in with no fear.”

Fournette is everything LSU coach Les Miles thought he might be when he offered Fournette a scholarship. That was in 2010, the summer before Fournette began his freshman year at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. In nearly three decades as a college coach, Miles had never done that before.

“You could tell if he ever gained a pound or grew an inch,” Miles said of Fournette, “he would be good enough at a very high level.”

In his first game at St. Aug — and as a freshman, he started for the varsity — Fournette ran for more than 200 yards. Wilson made sure to be there.

“You just sat and watched, and said, ‘That’s different,'” Wilson said. “He and his dad would come up to our games here at LSU. … He was very clear what he wanted. ‘Coach, I want to be great.'”

LSU wanted Fournette so badly the Tigers chose not to sign a running back in the two classes that preceded him.

Fournette wears No. 7 as a shout-out to the 7th Ward, where his family lived before Hurricane Katrina. When Fournette arrived at St. Aug, he brought with him a reputation off the field, too. He had been tossed out of “five or six” schools, by his estimation, for fighting. He found himself peering into the dark side of a troubled city.

“There’s a lot in talent in New Orleans that doesn’t get seen or heard of with the violence,” Fournette said. “They take different routes. New Orleans is a place. It’s home. But it also has — it’s like a bucket of crabs, you know? [People] try to pull you down. You got to try, like I say, stay above water.”

And that is how Fournette is most like the other teenage phenoms who achieved adult greatness. He stayed high in the bucket. They believe in corporal punishment at St. Aug, and the sting of the paddle helped Fournette arrive at his decision. The message the paddle delivered struck home.

“It’s discipline,” Fournette said. “It taught you a lot. Then I was kind of different from all the ninth graders. I had to grow faster than them. I was the No. 1 freshman in America. It still didn’t hit me. I was still doing childish things. My father and my coach told me, ‘You can’t be like everybody else. You’re not the same. You’re different.'”

High school is a time when no one wants to be different. The nail that stands up gets pounded, especially by the hammers of social media. Fournette stood up. He saw the trouble his older St. Aug teammate, Tyrann Mathieu, found at LSU. Fournette understood the lesson behind the discipline, and he applied it beyond the four walls of the classroom.

“I could have drunk,” he said. “I could have smoked. I could have done all that. … Don’t be basic. Be extraordinary with everything you do.”

He wanted to set an example for his little brother, Lanard, now a freshman on the LSU team. He still does. He wanted to succeed. He still does.

“As humble as he is, he’s so eager to learn more,” Wilson said. “We’re not talking about a young man with an ego who thinks he has arrived. He has a thirst of knowledge. He wants to get better. He wants to improve. He’s still a constant work in progress. And that’s what makes it a good situation.”

Fournette had a freshman season that most would consider a success. He started six games and rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns. Fournette thinks of it as a learning experience. He decided he needed to be faster. He dropped nine pounds by giving up fried foods.

You have no idea how much discipline that takes. When his mother, Lory, came to Baton Rouge with dinner for Leonard and some of his teammates on the day after the Syracuse game, everyone else got to eat her fried catfish. Leonard’s was baked.

He is lighter and he is moving faster. He is more knowledgeable, and Wilson said Fournette is thinking faster. Fournette can read a defense now and understand what cut he must make at the moment he needs to make it.

“You know, the easiest thing would be to say, ‘He’s like this great player or that great player,'” Miles said. “Or, ‘He’s got the speed of this guy, but he cuts on a dime like that guy, and he’s got ball skills like this guy.’ You could put that together very nicely and give him a tremendous compliment, which he is certainly due. But you know what? I think Leonard might define who he is better than anybody.”

There is one other way Fournette resembles athletes such as Harper and Spieth and LeBron. Not only does he want to succeed. He is not afraid to succeed.

“It was going to come,” he said of this season. “It was just a matter of time.”

Fournette has bigger fish to bake. The team has its goals, and there is that childhood dream of a Heisman. Hang on for the ride. For anyone who’s a college football fan, watching Fournette is the Best Time Ever.

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Posted on October 13, 2015, in College Football, Sports Media World and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on LSU’s Leonard Fournette: One Of The Nation’s Best College Football Players.

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