Even before his junior season begins, Leonard Fournette has already picked up a major award.
There’s a good chance he could bookend the season with a major award as well.
The LSU tailback won his second James J. Corbett Award in three years, given annually to Louisiana’s most outstanding male and female amateur athletes.
He won the Corbett Award in 2014 for his stellar career at St. Augustine on the eve of becoming an LSU Tiger. Now, on the eve of what is sure to be his last season in purple and gold, Fournette has won it again, becoming the first two-time male winner of the Corbett Award since Shaquille O’Neal in 1991-92.
Since its inception in 1967, the Corbett Award, named after late LSU athletic director Jim Corbett, has presaged greatness for many of its winners. They include 16 future NFL players, eight Major League Baseball players, four NBA players (two of them Hall of Famers), three WNBA players and one PGA Tour star.
It’s a short limb to edge out on to predict that Fournette is the next future pro on that list of winners.
His sophomore season was remarkable by most standards. Though he didn’t rush for the most yards in the nation, he became the first NCAA rushing champion from the Southeastern Conference since 1949, leading the FBS with 162.8 yards per game (a school record 1,953 yards for the season) and 22 rushing touchdowns. The NCAA uses yards per game, not total yards, to crown its rushing champion.
For much of last season, Fournette was the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. He ran into a crimson brick wall on a sobering November night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the beginning of the end of Fournette’s Heisman hopes.
But he’s back for another steamroller run across the college football landscape in 2016, at least one of the top three candidates for the Heisman. Fournette has earned the right to be mentioned in the same small group of stars along with Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Stanford running back/kick returner Christian McCaffrey.
Smith’s dissection of Alabama in the CFP Championship Game — 405 yards passing, four touchdowns — was remarkable even in defeat. McCaffrey can run, catch and return kicks as well as or better than anyone in the country. But Fournette has the brute force to flat run over the opposition. In fact, there were times last season against Auburn and Texas A&M where he seemed to be seeking out opposing defenders to do just that.
Winning the Heisman remains an uphill climb for Fournette despite the fact Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram have won it since 2009. The Heisman remains very much a quarterback-dominated award — the two Alabama backs are the only non-quarterbacks to win the Heisman since 1999.
But Fournette has the ability to break through that hierarchy, especially (and perhaps paradoxically) if he’s allowed to catch the ball more. Fournette caught 19 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown last season, but if he could increase that to more than two catches per game, it could bode well for his candidacy — even if his rushing yards go down.
For now, though, Fournette will have to content himself with another Corbett Award, and the chance to add an unprecedented third male Corbett Award next year.
Overall, Fournette is the 37th LSU athlete to win the Corbett. It’s the sixth time in the last seven years than a male LSU athlete has won the award, Fournette’s honor as a high school phenom in 2014 the only one to break that string. Former LSU women’s basketball player Seimone Augustus won it after all four of her college seasons from 2003-06.
Wednesday, UL-Lafayette softball standout Lexie Elkins won her second consecutive Corbett Award on the women’s side. Winners are selected each year by members of the New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Committee based on nominations from sportswriters, sportscasters and college sports information directors across the state.