Despite missing out on an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony earlier this month, Leonard Fournette still had much to be thankful for.
LSU’s sophomore running back broke the program’s 38-year-old single-season rushing record, finished the regular season as the NCAA rushing leader (158.3 yards per game) and appeared on the cover of several national publications.
He even garnered three first-team selections from All-America squads, making him a consensus All-American.
“He still thanked us for all the accomplishments he had this year,” junior left tackle Jerald Hawkins said this week. “Every time he sees us, he just tells us he appreciates everything we’ve done for him.”
But Fournette and his teammates were still upset about his absence from the list of Heisman finalists. Only Alabama running back Derrick Henry, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson were invited to New York, with Henry bringing home the hardware.
“It was hard. There’s some sore feelings about it,” Hawkins said. “But I know he respected the decision just like we respected the decision.”
Fournette hasn’t spoken with local reporters since LSU wrapped up the regular season with a win against Texas A&M on Nov. 28. In a news conference Friday, coach Les Miles hinted that Fournette’s fade in the Heisman race could make the running back more motivated than usual for the Tigers’ bowl game.
LSU (8-3) will face Texas Tech (7-5) in the Texas Bowl at 8 p.m. Dec. 29 at Houston’s NRG Stadium.
“There may be a piece of his personal game motivation like that,” Miles said. “I think there’s a response and a responsibility to our team that he plays his best. And I think he really gets that. I think he’s a team guy first.”
Midway through the year, oddsmaker Bovada listed Fournette as the biggest Heisman favorite that early in the season in more than a decade. He averaged 193.1 rushing yards per game, the most in the country by far, during the Tigers’ 7-0 start and their landing at No. 2 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings.
The sophomore flashed his combination of size and speed, ripping off highlight-reel runs on a weekly basis. But then LSU’s season — and Fournette’s Heisman hopes — fell apart. The Tigers lost three straight games in November as Fournette amassed 230 combined rushing yards.
Alabama held him to 31 yards on 19 carries while Henry usurped Fournette’s status as Heisman frontrunner. LSU junior center Ethan Pocic lumped some of the blame on the offensive line, which struggled to open holes during the three-game skid.
Miles found another explanation.
“I think we played some better teams in the back half,” the coach said this week. “When you line up against better defenses, it’s more difficult to get some of those big runs. I think we could have done a better job for him in several of those games offensively.”
LSU’s offensive linemen said Fournette’s coming up short for the Heisman will motivate them and the running back going into next season. Their coach focused on what Fournette already has accomplished.
“He was named to two All-American teams, which is as prestigious as anything there is,” Miles said. “The Walter Camp All-American team is, wow. If you’re on that, you’ve hit it.”
LSU will be without a reserve defensive linemen when they take on the Red Raiders’ up-tempo attack. Sophomore defensive end Sione Teuhema will not play in the Texas Bowl, Miles said Friday.
“He’s really coming to a point in time where we’ll count on him to play more,” the coach said. “And that will be some time after the bowl.”
Teuhema played sparingly in the Tigers’ first seven games, recording 13 tackles. He didn’t play in the last four games of the season and didn’t dress out for the final three.