By GLENN GUILBEAU | Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
BATON ROUGE — LSU tailback Leonard Fournette said he felt like a freshman again when he joined the Jacksonville Jaguars Thursday night as the fourth pick of the first round.
Only, the team he went to as a college freshman in 2014 had won double-digit games the previous four seasons and compiled a 44-9 record. The Jaguars, on the other hand, have suffered through double-digit losing seasons for six straight years. The last time they didn’t lose, they went 8-8 in 2010. The last playoff appearance was in 2007.
Welcome to the NFL, Leonard. But you will have some help. The Jaguars drafted left tackle Cam Robinson of Alabama via West Monroe in the second round. And Jacksonville vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin wants to run the football. New head coach Doug Marrone, who got the job after serving as interim coach in 2016 as did Fournette’s coach at LSU, believes the Jaguars are now a tougher team.
Fournette wants everyone to know, they are a faster one as well.
“A lot of people think for my size, I’m very slow,” Fournette (6 foot 1, 228 pounds) said at a Jaguars’ press conference shortly after being picked. “They don’t know I have a 21.4 time in the 200 and a 10.5 in the 100. When I get on the field, and it hits them, it kind of surprises them.”
Fournette figures to be a step quicker now that he is completely over the high and low ankle sprains he suffered shortly before and during the 2016 season. He played through the pain in the first four games and suited up in seven games overall, carrying 129 times for 843 yards and eight touchdowns and making 15 catches for 146 yards. He finished his LSU career as the fourth all-time leading rusher with 3,830 yards and No. 1 of those who stayed for just three seasons.
Despite missing two games early last season amid a three-week layoff because of the ankle, Fournette set a then school record for yards in a game with 284 on 16 carries with touchdown runs of 78, 76 and 59 yards in a 38-21 win over Ole Miss on Oct. 22.
“People say I’m in shape now, but I’m out of shape,” Fournette said after the game. “I’m like 230 or 233 right now. I usually play at 225.”
Don’t blame Ole Miss safety Deontay Anderson if the first thing he thinks about Fournette is not his speed. Anderson was introduced to Fournette after a swing pass when Fournette had a 15-yard head start toward Anderson in front of the LSU bench in that game. Key word – head. Fournette “trucked” him.
“He just man hunted him,” said LSU defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, who had a full view from the sidelines. “Sometimes, I don’t even know what defensive backs are thinking. You really thinking you’re going to tackle him one on one, right? I’d just push him out of bounds.”
Fournette’s ankle was obviously bothering him in his last game as a Tiger on Nov. 19 against Florida when he only decided to play just before kickoff because of a scuffle between the two teams on the field before the game, and Fournette was right in the middle of it. He was not at his best in the game as he rushed 12 times for just 40 yards in a 16-10 loss to the Gators. His last carry on third-and-goal from the Florida 1-yard line in the third quarter with the Tigers down 10-7 went for a 1-yard loss. He was not himself and sat out LSU’s last two games to heal the injury – not to make some sort of statement for future projected high round picks to skip bowls that are not playoff games.
“I’m not a doctor, but his ankle looked like 100 percent,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said of his drills on LSU’s pro day. “He cut. He changed directions well. There was kind of a ‘wow’ factor when he ran through the drills.”
Coughlin apparently has said wow.
“He is powerful, obviously,” Coughlin said at a press conference. “You like him at 228 or 230 pounds. He is fast. At his pro day, he did catch the ball and give the idea that he certainly could do that. I really don’t have any question he can play on all three downs. I think he will learn and be able to do whatever we ask him to do. He is powerful. He can step on the gas and make the big play. He’s ratcheted up a few safeties along the way, which I’m sure many people are very much aware of.”
Sounds like Coughlin saw a certain play in Fournette’s breakout game against Auburn as a sophomore in 2015 when he gained 228 yards in a little more than a half on 19 carries. On a 29-yard touchdown run, Fournette casually flipped Auburn safety Tray Matthews over his shoulder just as he dodged Auburn safety Nick Ruffin with a cut on a dime.
“That was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” said Orgeron, who was on the Southern California staff when Reggie Bush played there before he became the second player picked in the 2006 NFL draft.
“Still to this day when I watch that Auburn play, sometimes I can’t believe I did that,” Fournette said.
“I’d say he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Orgeron said.
As a freshman in 2014, Fournette gained 1,034 yards in just six starts. He gave those safeties a glimpse of things to come at Texas A&M in the regular season finale when he “ratcheted up” safety Howard Matthews despite the fact he was in the perfect, crouched, tackling position much as Tennessee safety Bill Bates was as Georgia tailback Herschel Walker rumbled toward him that day in 1980.
Then LSU coach Les Miles, who signed Fournette out of St. Augustine High in New Orleans over Alabama, considered a different tackling strategy after watching that play.
“I would tackle him low and away,” Miles said.
Fournette led the nation in rushing yards a game win 2015 as a sophomore with 162.8, finishing with 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns on 300 attempts along with 19 catches for 253 yards. He was running away with the Heisman Trophy that season before Alabama made him bleed, holding him to 31 yards on 19 carries in a 30-16 loss. Behind a pass-challenged offense again in 2016, he could get only 35 yards on 17 carries in a 10-0 loss to the Crimson Tide.
“He is the closest thing I have seen to a young Adrian Peterson,” said NFL draft expert Mike Detillier of WWL Radio in New Orleans a week before Peterson decided to sign with the Saints as a free agent.
Detillier said Fournette would go as high as the fourth pick to Jacksonville.
“He has a rare combination of size, power, straight-ahead speed, and he is very intelligent,” Detillier said. “He can just take over a game. Fournette will be a dominant player in the NFL. He will need to improve his pass-blocking skills and be a more secure receiver. He does catch the ball well, but at times he will bobble it.”
That is something he has been working on.
“I think he’s the best player in America. I’ve never been a part of a team with a player like Leonard,” Orgeron said.
“He played hurt, and he hurt people,” Godchaux said.
But it wasn’t a highlight reel or a drill that stays with LSU tight end Foster Moreau.
“The fact that he played hurt all season and played so well was amazing,” Moreau said. “For most of the year, if I hadn’t known he was hurt, I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell because he ran so well anyway, especially in the Ole Miss game. How he played hurt was a true testament to his character and who he is as a man.”
Fournette did more than wow Moreau.
“He was empowering,” he said.
Detillier feels Fournette’s talent could help change how NFL teams view offense in the future because of aging quarterbacks in the league now.
“That plays into more of a running attack,” he said. “The league will always throw the ball a lot, but that feature plays to having a signature back like Leonard Fournette more and more.”
Fournette is ready.
“I have a lot to show this season coming up,” he said. “And I will. I’m willing to do whatever to help the team out. I know my running style will transport over to the NFL.”
So is Coughlin, who was let go by the New York Giants after the 2015 season after winning two Super Bowls there. He was the original coach of Jacksonville from 1995-2002 and its best one. He took the Jaguars to four straight playoff appearances and two AFC title games.
“Going to the Super Bowl, and helping out the team anyway I can,” Fournette said of his goals in Jacksonville. “All the individual stuff will take care of itself. I’m really focused on the organization getting back to the top.”