Flustering Leonard Fournette is no easy task.
He’s a laidback, easy-going, quiet person who spends most of his downtime napping, eating or caring for his 21-month-old daughter, Lyric. He jokes with teammates, rarely talks football and can often be seen sporting a wide smile.
Getting under his skin is just as difficult as tackling him in the open field.
It’s not easy, but LSU’s loss at Alabama last year agitated the Tigers' star tailback. It wasn’t the game specifically that bothered him; it was the media coverage and national reaction to the loss and his rushing statistics: 31 yards on 19 carries.
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“That was the toughest part,” Fournette said during an interview with The Advocate over the summer. “Everybody was down on me: ‘Thirty-one yards … he was not what we expected.’ ”
Alabama is Fournette’s "it" game. It’s the one circled. It’s the one re-circled.
It has always been that way, since his senior year at St. Augustine, when he created a list of three individual goals he hoped to accomplish during his college career. The list remains a secret, but Cyril Crutchfield, who was Fournette's coach at St. Aug, revealed that one of the three is a “lofty” yardage mark against Alabama.
“Alabama was the only school mentioned in the list of goals,” Crutchfield said.
This is Fournette’s week. It’s his game. It’s his last shot, more than likely, to achieve a goal that the NFL draft-eligible junior made three years ago. It’s his final crack at big, bad Bama and coach Nick Saban, whom Fournette knows well from his days as a sought-after recruit.
It’s a chance at revenge for the worst outing of his college career last November in Tuscaloosa.
“I just think he’s going to play angry this game,” left tackle K.J. Malone said. “He played angry against Ole Miss and you saw what he did, but I think he’s got more fire this week, and I love it. People doubted him after the (Alabama) game last year, but I know he’s one of the best players in the country, and I really think he’s going to prove it this week.”
The fire this week is there. Interim coach Ed Orgeron earlier this week called him the “most motivated guy on the team.”
“His want-to to have success against Alabama,” Orgeron said, channeling the man he replaced, “is as high of a player as I’ve seen.”
Fournette and safety Jamal Adams gave an impassioned, fiery speech to the team after practice Wednesday, Orgeron said. Earlier in the day, Fournette tweeted, “Remember they told me that we will fail.....”
Fournette did not speak to reporters this week or last week. His meetings with local media have been limited since last year's loss to the Tide.
He said at Southeastern Conference media days this summer that he became “distracted” by media coverage of LSU’s three-game losing skid and his outing against the Tide.
“It can get at you sometimes,” he said.
The numbers from that nightmarish night in Tuscaloosa remain stunning.
Fournette’s Heisman Trophy campaign was dropped for a loss, and his streak of 100-yard rushing outings — it had been nine straight games — came to an end. Fournette didn’t have a run of more than 4 yards until 11 minutes remained. Before that 18-yard dash, he had 14 yards on 15 carries — shocking results for a player who entered the game averaging 193 yards.
“Certainly, Leonard had all the hype for the Heisman and all that and, after that game, seems like everybody just forgot about him,” tight end Colin Jeter said.
That happened as LSU skidded into that three-game losing streak.
“It’s motivation for everybody,” Fournette said during an interview with ESPN this week. “We were 7-0 and, when they beat us, our season kind of went down the drain.”
“After the game, he was down on himself,” Malone said. “After that game, I knew he was going to start doing something good. He’s showing it this year. I know he battled through injuries, but he came back stronger than ever.”
Since that game, Fournette has reached 100 yards in seven of eight games, and he rebounded from a lingering left ankle injury by running for a school-record 284 yards in last month's win over Ole Miss. That thrust him back into the Heisman discussion, even after he was sidelined for three games.
Fournette is averaging 167.5 yards, which would put him second in the nation if he were to have played the minimum number of games (75 percent of the season). Should he be back in the Heisman conversation?
“For sure,” Orgeron said. “He’s the best player in the country — no question. I don’t know how that works and that stuff, but I know this: When I was at USC, Carson Palmer had a great last three games, and he won the Heisman.”
It might take a whopper of a performance against the nation’s best rushing defense to get Fournette to that point.
Alabama allows just 70 rushing yards per game, 20 fewer than the next best defense. Just four times this season has the Tide given up a run of 20 or more yards. In three quarters against Ole Miss, Fournette ran for 20 or more yards four times.
“I know he was a little nicked up early on and missed a couple of games,” Saban said last week, “but I haven’t really seen a guy dominate a game like he did that game for a long time. So we have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He looks as good as ever and maybe even better.”
Fournette and Saban are pals, a relationship built during four years of recruiting discussions. Alabama offered a scholarship to Fournette when he was in ninth grade, just a few weeks after LSU extended an offer.
Fournette took his final official visit to Alabama in mid-December 2014, about three weeks before he committed to LSU. Saban and Bama assistant Burton Burns, the lead recruiter on Fournette, visited him just days after his official visit to LSU and just before his trip to Tuscaloosa.
Fournette’s mother, Lory, even cooked for the two. Before the visit, Lory called Burton Burns’ wife to inquire about Saban’s favorite meal.
“Crawfish etouffee and carrot cake,” Lory Fournette said. “He wouldn’t stop talking about it.”
Lory Fournette's cooking was so good that Saban later mailed her a letter thanking her for the hospitality. During the Fournettes' visit to Tuscaloosa days later, Saban met with the family in his office to deliver a message.
“He said something in reference to, ‘Don’t be pressured to go (to LSU) because that’s your home,’ ” Lory said. “He was like, ‘We need you over here.’ ”
LSU's Leonard Fournette has had limited success in two games against Alabama compared to what he has done against everyone else:
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All other opponents
Leonard Fournette missed three of LSU’s first seven games, but he’s still capable of breaking a few career school rushing marks, even if this is his last season in Baton Rouge:
Fournette is at
Yards per carry
Yards per game