MADISON, Wis. — Chikwe Obasih’s memory of Leonard Fournette is fuzzy.
After all, the season opener between LSU and Wisconsin in 2014 was more than two years ago, and Fournette only had eight carries.
So what does he remember?
“Him returning kickoffs,” said Obasih, Wisconsin’s junior defensive end. “Only other thing I remember is puking the first play I came in. (It was) one of those ‘Any Given Sunday’ moments.”
Obasih losing his lunch has nothing to do with Fournette, but like Fournette, Obasih was a freshman playing in his first college game — a nerve-wracking experience for a teenager that often results in a brief spell of illness.
Fournette had his own freshman jitters on that August night in Houston’s NRG Stadium. Wisconsin held him to 18 yards on eight carries, his rude welcome to a quick-paced, big-time college football game.
“It just went fast,” Fournette said earlier this week.
It has slowed down considerably. Fournette enters the 2016 opener against the Badgers as one of the Heisman Trophy favorites, a guy who cracked multiple single-season school records and is within range of topping career marks in the SEC and at LSU.
This is a different Leonard Fournette. Wisconsin knows it.
“Physically,” said former coach and current Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, “he’s a beast.”
For Leonard Fournette, the hard part was watching.
In interviews Wednesday at Camp Randall Stadium, players and coaches gloated about LSU’s star tailback and explained — in not-so-great detail — of their plan to slow him. They’ve got “tricks,” one said, that they plan to use against LSU’s offensive line, and they’ll play a similar 3-4 defense that now-LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda manned at the school for the past three years.
They’ll gang tackle as well, players said, and they’ll “fill gaps,” another added.
But will all of it work?
Justin Wilcox, Aranda’s replacement, hopes so. The Badgers hired him away from Southern California. He’s had stops at Tennessee and Washington, too. He faced LSU at both of those last two schools. He’ll get the Tigers for a third time, but, a first, with Fournette.
“Nobody’s tackled him consistently one-on-one. Nobody has,” Wilcox said. “At the end of the day, you’re going to have to have a lot of guys run to the football and get a lot of bodies around the ball, to support each other.”
Wilcox used a string of descriptions for Fournette: Big, athletic, strong, quick. But the most noteworthy thing about watching the running back on tape is the combination of power and physicality with his quickness and speed, he and players said.
It’s baffling, one player said — so incredible that they’ve never seen anything quite like it, never seen a back with such power and quickness.
“You see half and half with different runners,” said Jack Cichy, a junior inside linebacker. “It’s unique and it obviously sticks out, and that’s why everybody knows about him. He does stick out. No, it’s not something you see often.”
Wisconsin players and Wilcox are well aware of LSU’s personnel offensively. They’ve had all offseason to study the Tigers.
They know that LSU will start new faces at, arguably, two of the most important spots on the field not named “quarterback." K.J. Malone, the Tigers’ projected starter at right tackle, and Toby Weathersby, the projected right tackle, combine for one start.
You don’t have to tell that to the Badgers. Searching for game film on Malone and Weathersby hasn’t been easy, said T.J. Watt, a starting outside linebacker.
“They were in late in games,” he said. “We’ve been trying to figure out film tips on them.”
Exploiting the inexperience on the outside is a plan, admits Wilcox. Pressuring quarterback Brandon Harris and keeping him in the pocket is essential, too.
“They’re very big,” Cichy said of LSU’s offensive line. “They move well, but I think we’ll have a couple of tricks to be able to try to play to their weaknesses.”
“Sorry,” he said, “I can’t do that.”
Harris and his tall, speedy receivers aren’t being overlooked.
“No. 6 can really get out,” Obasih said, referring to the quarterback’s jersey number.
But, oh yeah, there’s that Fournette guy.
“I’ve been on some teams with some really good, talented backs,” Wilcox said. “He’s as good of any runner I’ve ever seen.”
The Badgers stuffed him two years ago in LSU’s 28-24 comeback victory. His longest carry of that game: 5 yards. It came on the first carry of his career, on second-and-10 on LSU’s opening series. On his final carry, he lost 3 yards.
In between, he struggled with the speed in his introductory to college football.
“I didn’t really play, so …” he said when asked about the game earlier this week.
Pressed, Fournette said: “Yeah, it’s going to be slower now. I’m used to the speed. We’ll see …”
Some thought highly of him even during that 2014 duel. From a suite in NRG Stadium, Alvarez wached.
“I saw him his first game, as a freshman, and I thought he was a beast,” Alvarez said Wednesday. “That size, speed and maturity — he had a maturity as a true freshman. He’s one of those special athletes you only get, maybe, if you’re lucky, once or twice in your coaching career.”
HOLDING ’EM DOWN
Leonard Fournette has been held under 50 yards six times in his career at LSU. Five of those six times came in his freshman season in 2014. He opened his college career against Wisconsin in 2014, running for 18 yards, the second-lowest yardage total.