It would have been nice, perhaps even glorious, had Leonard Fournette played in just one more game for LSU.
Oh to see him tear through that suspect Louisville defense in the Citrus Bowl, breaking through arm tackles, running over foolish cornerbacks, shaking linebackers off his shoulder pads as though they were made of paper.
But Fournette has hung up his LSU shoulder pads for good. He won’t play against Louisville on New Year’s Eve. The next time you see him steamrolling over opposing defenders, it will be in the NFL.
Selfishly, if you follow LSU football, you wanted him to play again. You wanted to see Fournette, the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, on one side of the ball and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Heisman winner, on the other. You wanted to see who shined brightest in the midday Florida sun.
But Fournette will instead be like the rest of us that day: a spectator. He said Friday that he and coach Ed Orgeron reached a mutual decision that it was in Fournette’s best interests that he not risk playing.
It’s a disappointing choice, but the right one. Fournette revealed Friday that the high ankle sprain he suffered in August was reinjured no less than four times during the season: vs. Wisconsin, at Auburn, at Arkansas and vs. Florida.
One more blow, and it could hamper him in the NFL draft combine in February, which in turn could hamper his draft stock. And his draft stock, despite a pain- and frustration-filled 2016 season, couldn’t be higher. Analysts continue to say he’s the greatest running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, and that’s covering a time frame that includes a pair of Alabama Heisman winners at the position: Saints tailback Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry.
No running back has been taken with the No. 1 pick since 1995, so expecting Fournette to be the first man to get a hug from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on April 27 is asking a bit much. But if all goes well in his predraft workouts, it won’t take Fournette long to have his name called. And unless they trade up, Fournette likely will be gone before the Saints (currently with the No. 8 pick) make their first selection.
Fournette did enough for LSU, enough to earn the right to protect his chance at pro football’s millions. Perhaps he tried to do too much, especially the last time we saw him against Florida.
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Stirred into angry action by a pregame scuffle, he convinced his coaches to let him play. But he clearly wasn’t the Fournette we knew, the one who led the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing in 2015, the first Southeastern Conference back to do so since 1949. He couldn’t push off, couldn’t cut, couldn’t channel that brute strength and power like a javelin into the solar plexus of Gators defenders. It probably would have been more of the same against Louisville.
So he will cheer and he will encourage and he will watch the clock in Camping World Stadium tick down and signal the official end of his college career. And afterward, we will be left to wonder where he stacks up in the annals of LSU football.
In 40 years of watching LSU football, he’s the greatest running back I’ve ever seen. Better than Charles Alexander, Kevin Faulk, Dalton Hilliard, even the brief comet that streaked over Tiger Stadium named Cecil Collins. His combination of speed, strength and quiet intensity was simply unmatched.
Leonard Fournette's college career is over.
But is he the best player ever at LSU? On balance, no. He could have been, but it takes more than talent to be great. It takes durability, and it takes delivering championships.
Personally, I think Fournette ranks behind 1959 Heisman winner Billy Cannon, still the Tiger by which all other Tigers are judged. Cannon could run, catch, throw (he threw for the only score in LSU’s 7-0 Sugar Bowl win over Clemson to cap its 1958 national championship season), kick and, in a different era of football, he had to play defense. Cannon’s 89-yard punt return against Ole Miss in 1959 wouldn’t be the greatest play in LSU history but a mere footnote if Cannon and Warren Rabb hadn’t stopped Rebels quarterback Doug Elmore on the goal line in the closing seconds of a 7-3 win.
Then there’s Tommy Casanova, LSU’s only three-time All-American. Casanova’s specialty was playing safety, but he also returned kicks and occasionally played running back. And he led the Tigers to the 1970 SEC championship.
LSU defensive lineman Christian LaCouture might return for another season after all.
Fournette ranks right behind them on sheer ability, but there were no championships in his three years with the Tigers. There wasn’t an appearance in the SEC title game or even a win over Alabama. There is only so much one man can do on the field, even a football virtuoso like Fournette, but there are multiple measuring sticks to consider.
But on talent, on heart, on effort, on a glittering stack of indelibly memorable plays and performances, he was right there among the very best. The kind of player who makes you say, “We may never see his like again.”
That’s the mark of greatness. That’s what Fournette gave LSU and what he has. And it’s that greatness for the seasons to come that he must now protect.
The Advocate’s Scott Rabalais ranks LSU’s 10 greatest players of all time:
1. Billy Cannon: 1959 Heisman winner, two-time All-American
2. Tommy Casanova: LSU’s only three-time All-American
3. Leonard Fournette: First SEC back since 1949 to lead the NCAA in rushing (2015)
4. Jerry Stovall: 1962 Heisman runner-up
5. Glenn Dorsey: Most decorated player in LSU history (2007 Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski, Lott)
6. Kevin Faulk: Still LSU’s all-time leading rusher (4,557 yards)
7. Charles Alexander: Two-time All-American rushed for 1,686 yards in 1977
8. Bert Jones: Only consensus All-America QB in LSU history; fourth in Heisman voting in 1972
9. Tommy Hodson: LSU’s career passing yards leader (9,115)
10. Doc Fenton: Led LSU to 1908 “national championship;” elected in 1971 to College Football Hall of Fame
Whom do you consider LSU's greatest player of all time? Vote at www.TheAdvocate.com/sports.