Maybe it was Leonard Fournette’s leap from the 4-yard line over three 6-foot-tall defenders for a touchdown.
At some point last year in LSU’s game at Florida – maybe in that trio of mouth-gaping plays – Fournette felt like he returned to the high school field. After a lightning fast first month of college, everything finally slowed down.
“That’s when I started noticing everything,” Fournette said in an interview last week.
Things clicked for the former No. 1-ranked prospect in America, and, more so, LSU coaches began feeding the running back the ball.
Fournette averaged nearly 100 yards a game the final seven outings, starting with the Tigers’ 30-27 win over Florida, and he rolled up six touchdowns in that stretch, shaking off some early troubles and launching himself into this spring practice.
A thinner version of Fournette is halfway through his first spring.
He’s lost about three pounds during the offseason, he said at a recent interview session – his first since the Tigers’ Music City Bowl loss on Dec. 30 and his first non post-game interview session since the start of his rookie season.
Surrounded by a half-dozen reporters, Fournette’s more chiseled frame – he’s hovering at 227 pounds – is obvious.
“Getting faster and more lean,” he said. “I feel like I’m faster.”
A faster Fournette? Maybe a scary thought for Southeastern Conference rivals. The New Orleans native broke LSU’s all-time freshman rushing record last season, rolling up 1,034 yards.
That didn’t satisfy him.
“I think I could have did better,” Fournette said, “but I believe this season is going to be my out-break season. I’m working hard towards it. Every day we’re going over film together, especially with (running backs) Coach Frank (Wilson).”
Fournette didn’t just drop weight over the off-season. He welcomed a baby girl into his life. It’s a topic he politely declines to speak about, but he’s used social media to show the world how proud he is to be a father to Lyric Jae Fournette, born around New Year’s Day.
On the field, Fournette’s goal are to have outings like he did against Texas A&M and Notre Dame every game. He thinks he can do it, he says, now that the game has slowed for him.
Coaches realized this midway through last season. He averaged 17 carries over the final seven games, up six from the first half of the year.
It’s the plan moving forward, too. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said on radio in February that the staff wants to give Fournette at least “15-20” touches a game this coming season.
Cyril Crutchfield, Fournette’s high school coach at St. Augustine and confidant, saw a freshman running back during the first half of the season last year trying to learn his way against major college defenses. By the bowl game against Notre Dame – an 11-carry, 143-yard day – Fournette had changed.
“The level he was playing at in the bowl game was the pace of a second-year or a third year running back out of high school,” Crutchfield said.
So what of next season?
“The sky’s the limit for him. Heisman. But he’s focusing on team-oriented things, SEC, being in Atlanta playing for an SEC championship,” the coach said.
Fournette pushed aside any Heisman talk this spring. That’s something he didn’t necessarily do last season. He made it known that winning the Heisman Trophy as a freshman was one of his goals, and then, after his first college touchdown, he struck the Heisman pose to the chagrin of coach Les Miles.
“I’m not really focusing on that right now,” he said. “Focusing on getting better with the team, winning a championship.”
Last year, part of his focus was quieting the naysayers during the first six weeks of the season.
“It’s not worth mentioning where it came from,” Crutchfield said of the early critics. “Nobody’s worth mentioning.”
“People were saying that I was just good in high school,” Fournette said. “Got to college, and they were saying I wasn’t good. I was upset about it. Talked to my mother and my father and Coach Frank (Wilson). He told me never let someone discourage you. I just brushed it off.”
And then he broke out during that final stretch. He had those three plays against Florida, that over the shoulder catch against Ole Miss, 79 tough yards in a loss to Alabama and he ran over that guy from Texas A&M.
You remember that one right? He bowled over A&M safety Howard Matthews. He hears about that play from time to time.
“They’ll mention it. They’ll say, ‘Why you did him that?’” a smiling Fournette said.
What changed – beside coaches handing him the ball more? His vision was at the center of the early woes.
“The main thing was being patient and not pressing,” Crutchfield said. “The hole would open, he’d see it and it was already closing when he’d hit it. Nothing is a replacement for experience. It was frustrating and tough especially coming in with lofty expectations. He really settled in.”
The learning is on-going. In fact, Fournette says he didn’t completely digest LSU’s pass-blocking schemes until the bowl game.
Fournette never pass blocked much in high school, and, at least early on, he found himself on the LSU sideline when the Tigers were planning to throw.
“It was a lot to process for me,” he said.
Fournette’s settled in now, though. He’s got the pass-blocking, he’s seeing the holes, he’s running over defenders who, at the season’s start, won the one-on-one battles.
Next up: learning how to lead. As a sophomore, he and Darrel Williams are expected to be the veterans of a backfield that lost three seniors last season in fullback Connor Neighbors and running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard.
Another learning process awaits.
“Coach Frank said he never had sophomores lead a team,” Fournette said. “He says it’s a big role but he believes in us, and we can do it.”
Average per carry
Average per game
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.