Looking back on Leonard Fournette’s epic sophomore season: High highs, tough lows and more excitement to come _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU running back Leonard Fournette (7) runs the ball during the second half Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Tuscaloosa. Alabama won 30-16.

Several weeks ago, well before the announcement of LSU’s bowl matchup with Texas Tech, Red Raiders linebacker Micah Awe dreamed about Leonard Fournette.

The basis of the dream: Awe tackled the 230-pound running back at the line of scrimmage, stuffing him for no gain during a bowl game.

The dream turned into a premonition. LSU meets Tech in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 29 in the final hurrah of Fournette’s record-breaking sophomore season.

How good was 2015 for Fournette? Good enough to have random college football players dreaming about the Tigers star.

“I had a dream about tackling him … even before we made a bowl game,” Awe told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “Now it is happening.”

Leonard Fournette swept the nation this season. His face popped up all over national television, his name a constant on radio and online.

The media descended on Baton Rouge during Fournette’s early-season tear. He was the subject of stories in The New York Times, ESPN The Magazine, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.

He graced the cover of magazines and newspapers. They wrote about his unusual combination of speed and size, his bubbly personality, his New Orleans up-bringing, his daughter, Lyric, and his nickname, BUGA.

He ripped through the first five teams on LSU’s schedule, rolling up 1,022 yards — the seventh-most in college football history through the first five games of a season.

He raced to three straight 200-yard games, highlighted by a 237-yard, three-touchdown, jaw-dropping, tackle-breaking romp over Auburn. He scored at least one touchdown in the first nine games.

LSU’s campus boomed with BUGA. jerseys, plastered with his No. 7, dotted Baton Rouge. A walk to class for Fournette included a half-dozen autograph signings and a dozen more photo opportunities.

He got so popular that he used a secret exit to leave Tiger Stadium after home games, usually flanked by two law enforcement officers.

By early October, Fournette was a 1-to-2 favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, the biggest Heisman favorite that early in a season in at least a decade, according to oddsmaker Bovada.

Who would have thought Dec. 12 that Fournette would be in Louisiana — and not in New York at the Heisman ceremony? He was not one of three finalists for the top prize in college football.

Fournette met with reporters Wednesday in Atlanta, an interview session ahead of his appearance at the college football awards ceremony Thursday.

He was asked about his Heisman absence.

“Everybody was angry about the whole situation,” he said. “But like I told my coaches, my parents and everybody on the team, everything happens for a reason. It is what it is. Come back next season; get ready for this bowl game coming up.”

Alabama running back Derrick Henry beat out Fournette on Thursday for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back.

The lows of Fournette’s season — LSU’s three straight losses and his 31-yard output against Alabama — cost the star national honors. The highs, though, put Fournette in a category by himself in LSU lore.

“LSU has some of the best history of running backs of any school,” said Jacob Hester, the former LSU running back turned TV analyst. “You say the names, and everybody knows who they are. Having said that, Leonard has had the best season of any of them.”

Fournette has landed on a host of All-America teams, and he broke Charles Alexander’s single-season school rushing record, a mark that stood for 37 years.

Still, the running back wasn’t completely satisfied by his sophomore year, said Kyle Gilbert, now an assistant at John Curtis who coached Fournette at St. Augustine and is a friend to the family.

Gilbert and Fournette spoke last week.

“He was decompressing,” Gilbert said. “He just really needed to exhale. We just exhaled for a minute. I let him vent.”

The mid- to late-season slump — losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss — “bothered him more than anything,” Gilbert said. Fournette kept telling Gilbert, “I could have done more. I could have done more.”

He’ll enter the 2016 season — potentially his last at the school — with at least two of his college goals still to attain: Win the Heisman Trophy and win the national championship.

“He’s going to try to take it up another notch,” Gilbert said.

He has more notches?

Gilbert laughed.

“In his defense,” Gilbert said, “he doesn’t know how to accept failure. He can’t comprehend the fact that he can’t do something.”

The expectations are high. Fournette will enter the season, potentially, as the Heisman Trophy favorite, and the Tigers are likely to start the year in the top 15. Many expect the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder to leave early for the NFL draft, but he has dropped subtle hints that he’s not planning such a move.

He did it again Wednesday in Atlanta when asked about his teammates and their reaction to him not being a Heisman finalist.

“They were upset — a lot of them. Like I told them, ‘I have two more years to play; (I’ll) be with you guys,’ ” he said.

No matter what happens next season, Fournette’s 2015 won’t be easily forgotten: three straight 200-yard games; the impromptu postgame speech after the win over South Carolina; the disaster at Alabama; the wildness surrounding coach Les Miles’ job.

Fournette went into more detail Wednesday than any player has about Miles’ speech to the team concerning his job ahead of the A&M game.

“He said if he gets fired, it’s going to hurt him. But at the end of the day, it’s just a business,” Fournette said Miles told the team.

Lost in all of the mayhem: Fournette toppling a 38-year-old record.

He surpassed Alexander’s single-season mark of 1,686 yards. He broke the record in the third quarter of the win over Texas A&M in the regular-season finale. He did it in 11 games, too, after the Tigers’ season opener against McNeese State was canceled.

Alexander, now 58, watched that game from his home in Sugar Land, Texas.

“When he broke the record, it was only a 1- or 2-yard carry. I didn’t even realize he had broken the record,” Alexander said.

How did he find out?

“I got a phone call from a sportscaster, and he wanted my comments,” Alexander said. “I have reached out to Leonard to congratulate him. Left him a voicemail. I didn’t ask him to call me back. I know hundreds of people are calling him. I personally congratulated him on doing a great job.”

It’s not over yet, of course.

Fournette meets one of the nation’s worst rushing defenses Dec. 29 in Houston. Texas Tech allows more than 270 yards per game, which ranks the Red Raiders 126th of 128 FBS teams.

Awe, Tech’s senior linebacker, will attempt to make a dream come true. At least one of his teammates doesn’t have faith. Awe told defensive lineman Branden Jackson about his dream.

“I told him,” Jackson said, “ ‘Fournette is going to run through you.’ ”

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @DellengerAdv.