Leonard Fournette was drawing an enormous crowd. Two dozen people were surrounding him, which is pretty much the way it felt on a dismal day last fall when Alabama’s defense was all around Fournette like paparazzi on a Kardashian.
On this occasion, Fournette he was on stage at the SEC Media Days, back in July, wearing a bow tie and stylish ensemble chosen by his young daughter, Lyric. It was the requisite attention for the best running back in the Southeastern Conference, arguably one of the top 10 backs in SEC history, a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and the centerpiece of the Louisiana State offense.
Attention isn’t his favorite thing: “Anytime I go somewhere, I have to have pictures and the autographs, have to kiss a child,” he said, laughing softly. “It’s crazy things I have to do. I don’t mind it because it comes with the territory.”
For this week at least, there is another superlative for Fournette: the best running back that Jacksonville State has ever faced, as the Gamecocks travel to LSU on Saturday.
It’s an LSU team with its pride stung. They belied the off-season promises of a more versatile and lethal offense in a dismal 16-14 loss to Wisconsin, intensifying the heat on coach Les Miles, who barely survived last year without being fired.
Former LSU player Harvey Williams said on a radio talk show Tuesday that Miles and his offensive coordinator Cam Cameron “need to be run out of Baton Rouge, like them ol' Frankenstein movies with torches and all that. Everybody in Baton Rouge ought to light a torch.”
Fournette carried 23 times for 138 yards against Wisconsin’s big, physical defense, and he caught three passes for 38 yards. He limped off in the fourth quarter after taking a blow on his left ankle, the same bad ankle that forced him to miss a week of summer practice. Miles said it was just a contusion and though Fournette didn’t practice Tuesday, he’ll be ready to play Saturday.
“Size, speed, strength, vision,” Jax State coach John Grass began when asked to evaluate Fournette. “He’s got every move you want a running back to have. He’s go the complete package. He’s a bigger guy, 6-2, 6-3, 236 and he runs as fast as he needs to. He’s very powerful. He doesn’t mind contact. He’ll run over you, he’ll run around you. He’s everything you want in a running back.
“He’s going to make his plays,” Grass continued. “You’re not going to shut him down. You have to contain him and not let him have too many explosive plays. If he gets to the second level, you’re not stopping him.”
It’s little surprise the team that best shut down Fournette was Alabama’s deep and devastating defense of a year ago. Fournette, who had been averaging nearly 200 yards a game, was held to 31 yards on 19 carries by the Tide, on an evening when the Heisman Trophy was all but wrested from his grip and handed off to Alabama’s Derrick Henry. The LSU line couldn’t block Alabama, quarterback Brandon Harris couldn’t have hit water if he fell out of a boat and the whole crowd focused on Fournette.
“Most definitely it did (get LSU off-track),” Harris said. “Everybody’s heads weren’t in the right place. We forgot our ‘why.’ Why we worked so hard to get there. We were on the top of the world, 7-0 and leading the SEC.”
It was followed by two more losses in consecutive weeks and a nondescript bowl bid.
Fournette may still win the Heisman Trophy. He’ll be a first-round draft pick next spring should he opt to skip his senior year at LSU. But those aren’t the priorities.
“I wasn’t really worried about (the Heisman in 2015) and this year I’m not either,” Fournette said. “My main focus is to win a national championship and bring it back to Louisiana. … My personal goal is to win a national championship, period.”
Besides, why be in a hurry to leave college and join the real world?
Fournette left the crowd surrounding him laughing when he said, “Everything is free. I don’t have to pay for anything right now.”