MADISON, Wis. — Depending on your perspective, Leonard Fournette is either the most hyped running back in the history of college football or the most hyped running back in the history of hype.
Either way, Fournette, LSU’s ultra-talented freshman tailback, has developed stratospherically high expectations without ever having carried the ball for a single college play. He is the only high school player in Louisiana history to win the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year Award twice. He has drawn praise from rapper Lil Wayne and invoked references to both Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods from his head coach, Les Miles.
Now, all Wisconsin’s defense will be tasked with doing is stopping Fournette in his first collegiate game when No. 13 LSU plays No. 14 Wisconsin at 8 p.m. CT on Saturday in Houston, Texas. And the fact Badgers players have no reliable game film to study on him only adds to the mystique.
"It’s not much you can watch, him not being there last year," Badgers nose guard Warren Herring said. "You really can’t watch high school highlight tapes or anything like that because that’s high school. The games are a lot faster now. They say he’s a good back. I don’t doubt that at all. We can only control what we can control."
Fournette, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound native of New Orleans, La., was without question the No. 1-ranked high school running back in the country. Even as a prep freshman, he rushed for 1,735 yards and 22 touchdowns. He finished his career with 7,619 rushing yards and 88 touchdowns. After Fournette destroyed one opponent last season with 255 rushing yards on national television, Lil Wayne tweeted "Leonard Fournette is the truth!"
Badgers running back Melvin Gordon, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate who knows plenty about expectations, recognizes the talent Fournette possesses and the extraordinary exposure he’s about to experience.
"He’s getting a lot of hype, man," Gordon said. "I can only imagine the pressure. It seems like he’s a hard worker. When you’re getting praise from your head coach, saying all these great things about you, you have to be doing something right. We’ll see how good of a player he is. I’m sure he’ll put up a performance. But I hope not too well against us."
The outside pressure of drawing comparisons to the likes of tailback Adrian Peterson would seem to be enough. But Miles, LSU’s 10th-year coach, has done little to downplay any of the Fournette expectations, only fueling the hype machine.
At the SEC media days last month, Miles said of Fournette: "He expects himself to be something very special. 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."
And before Fournette had donned full pads during fall camp earlier this month, Miles invoked Woods, the 14-time major golf champion.
"It’s like having Tiger Woods on the golf course with a putter," Miles said. "You want to see him tee off, don’t you? We’ll have to put the pads on before we can see him tee off."
So, how many touches will Fournette earn in the season opener against Wisconsin? That remains to be seen because returning tailbacks Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard hope to have a say in the matter. Magee rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season, while Hilliard gained 310 yards rushing with seven touchdowns, and both players are listed ahead of Fournette on the depth chart — if only out of respect for their seniority.
"He’s going to want the opportunity to do everything that he can do, and certainly he’ll play a role in this game," Miles told reporters Monday of Fournette. "No reason for him to think about winning the Heisman tomorrow. . . . Just make a contribution, do the things that you’re slated to do, let’s go play and let’s enjoy yourself."
Wisconsin finished last season ranked fifth in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 102.5 yards per game. No opponent gained more than 192 yards rushing against the Badgers, while LSU averaged 202.3 yards rushing.
Given that Wisconsin will use an entirely new starting front seven, questions linger about how effective the Badgers will be in Year 2 of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme. Those questions certainly will be answered if Wisconsin can stop Fournette and Co. in the season opener.
"I just heard he’s a great running back, he’s going to be a great asset to them," Badgers safety Michael Caputo said. "Someone that we have to definitely take notice of. We can’t put him on the back burner at any point."