HOOVER, Ala. — Leonard Fournette isn’t going to have the chance to sneak up on the college football world. He’s not going to slowly emerge, or explode, unexpectedly, onto the scene.
LSU’s freshman running back hasn’t carried the ball once in a game. Heck, he hasn’t even gone through a full college practice session yet. But the hype coming from Baton Rouge, La. has made Fournette seem even more formidable than one could imagine. And that’s tough, considering he was bestowed, by recruiting circles, the label of best prospect to come out of high school.
And if the hype coming from campus wasn’t enough to impossibly set expectations high, head coach Les Miles pushed the bar even higher by using Fournette’s name in the same sentence as, arguably, the greatest basketball player ever to live.
"He (Fournette) expects himself to be something very special," Miles said at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. on Wednesday. "I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting him to be better than any."
No, Miles didn’t say Fournette was going to make the same kind of impact as Jordan. He didn’t say Fournette was as good at football, as Jordan was with a basketball. But mentioning the two names together set the tone for the entire LSU session on Wednesday. If there was a way to sneak a Fournette question in to anyone in the room (Fournette was not in attendance at SEC Media Days), it was going to happen.
Left tackle La’el Collins shared his first impressions of Fournette.
He praised his work ethic, intelligence and drive to get better. When Fournette gets to participate in drills with the team, Collins said he’s coachable to the point that any small tweak made by the coaching staff is immediately implemented into Fournette’s repertoire.
Collins has been dazzled by the fact that Fournette not only attends position meeting with the running backs, but he sits in on offensive line meetings too, soaking in every bit of information that he can to get better on the football field.
It doesn’t seem like Fournette carries himself like a true freshman.
"He looks like he’s been there three years," said Collins. "He looks like a guy who knows what’s going on. He looks like a guy who played in games for us last year."
Fournette wasn’t running the football at LSU for the last three years. He was at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, La. amassing 6,993 rushing yards and 82 touchdowns over four seasons. With those gaudy stats, Fournette also brings with him an Adonis-like frame (he’s 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds) and blazing speed (he’s been clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.35 seconds).
He’s displayed that speed already in drills, to the amazement of senior running back Terrence Magee. So much so, that comparisons to another great athlete–this one from the sport of football–are being made.
"I’m sitting on my toes, on the edge of my seat right now," said Magee to make a point to emphasize how special watching Fournette was. "Every time I see Adrian Peterson run the ball, It’s the exact same way. From the first time I saw him (Fournette) run the ball, to the things he’s doing now in 7-on-7, and the drills we do, I just can’t wait to see him put a set of pads on and go against the defense. He’s very exciting to watch play."
Magee said there’s a wow factor when he sees Fournette catch passes and blow past would-be tacklers, almost as if they were standing still. He believes the comparisons to Peterson are legitimate, and quite frankly Peterson is "the only guy who’s playing the running back position now that you can compare him (Fournette) to."
Over the course of 30 minutes in a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency-Wynfrey in Hoover on Wednesday, Fournette was mentioned with Jordan and compared to the best running back in the NFL right now.
Before this kid carries his first collegiate football, he’s going to be called Superman. That’s the only comparison left that’s big enough.
Can Fournette possibly live up to this hype and pressure?
Since Fournette was compared to Peterson, it’s necessary to examine what Peterson did in his freshman season at Oklahoma in 2004.
Peterson carried the football 339 times for 1,925 yards. He also scored 15 touchdowns and was a consensus All-American. That effort was one of the greatest freshman campaigns at running back in the history of college football.
Ron Dayne at Wisconsin in 1996 (325 carries, 2,109 yards and 21 touchdowns), Herschel Walker at Georgia in 1980 (274 carries, 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns) and Marshall Faulk at San Diego State (201 carries, 1,429 yards and 21 touchdowns) also had otherworldly freshman seasons.
Fournette might have the physical attributes, and he might have the skills to pull off something similar. But he’s likely not going to get the opportunity.
With Magee and Kenny Hilliard in the backfield–both running backs have averaged over five yards per carry during their college careers–Fournette’s touches will be limited. There’s no way Fournette sees 339 carries like Peterson in 1994. He might not even get to 200. And that might benefit him in the long run.
"When you look at guys that take 30, 25 carries a game, and look at their careers at the next level, it doesn’t really last that long," said Magee. "For us to have running-back-by-committee at LSU, it allows you to be more successful at the next level, and gives you the opportunity for you to go into the next level injury free. At times you may look at it as it’s too crowded, and ‘I don’t want to play there.’ But in the long run it ends up benefitting you."
Miles said he and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron plan to make sure each running back this season has the opportunity to be explosive.
"I think that’s an advantage," Miles said of having three capable running backs to share the load. "If you look at Terrence Magee, we’ve gotten him tired. There have been times when he just busted a big run, took significant contact. Kenny Hilliard had just played. In fact, we will need those guys that have fresh legs."
That means LSU should roll out a full-fledged running-back-by-committee approach. Fournette may be the lead runner in this committee, but there are still going to be three guys splitting carries. That means while seemingly capable of breaking out with a 2,000-yard season, Fournette likely won’t amass enough time with the football to do so.
We’re going to have to find a different measuring stick to determine if Fournette should fairly be compared to Peterson.