The Face of the SEC, Leonard Fournette, Has Highest Expectations for 2016

HOOVER, Ala. — For the record, LSU running back Leonard Fournette says he doesn’t eat anything except peanuts and yogurt after 7 p.m., suggests his decision on turning pro next year will depend on his ability to get his degree and still calls Georgia’s Nick Chubb the best running back in the Southeastern Conference.

Whatever. He’s a little more convincing regarding his top goal for the upcoming season.

“My personal goal is to win a national championship—nothing else,” he said Thursday while giving a good demonstration on how to handle the spotlight at SEC media days. “Any individual award, any dream I have is going to take care of itself.”

On Friday, Fournette will have his first chance to make history during the 2016 college football season when the media’s preseason All-SEC selections are announced. He could become just the second player since 2000 to be a unanimous choice.

The first was Darren McFadden in 2007. The Arkansas running back was coming off finishing second to Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith for the Heisman Trophy. He had tallied 1,647 rushing yards, which were the fifth-most in SEC history at the time, and 14 touchdowns.

Fournette’s 2015 blew those numbers away. As a sophomore, he crushed LSU’s single-season rushing record with 1,953 yards, which, with the NCAA using average yards per game, made him its rushing king (162.8).

He set seven other single-season school marks while becoming the first LSU player to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two years.

“No doubt he’ll be better,” LSU offensive lineman Ethan Pocic said. “He’s probably what, 20 or 21 years old, and still developing. Each year, he’s only going to get better.”

That’s bad news for the rest of college football, especially with LSU returning 18 starters.

Through the first two months of last season, Fournette was running away from the field for the Heisman and became the fastest player in LSU history to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season. He did it in just five games, including 244 at Syracuse, only to have it all stopped as abruptly as a needle being yanked off a record.

At Alabama, the eventual national champion, he was stonewalled en route to 19 carries for 31 yards, most of which came on one play. That and a touchdown were his only highlights, as Crimson Tide defenders continually hit Fournette behind the line of scrimmage.

“Having that extra week of preparation [during the bye] definitely did help some of the guys get healthy, but it was ultimately a pride thing,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “The coaches didn’t really run a lot of different calls. It was just mano a mano.”

The 30-16 loss didn’t just dash his Heisman run, as the Crimson Tide’s Derrick Henry ran for 210 yards on 38 carries and three touchdowns; it also derailed LSU’s entire season. The team dropped its next two games (against Arkansas and at Ole Miss) and had to win its regular-season finale against Texas A&M to save head coach Les Miles’ job.

That’s why Fournette now calls last season a “learning experience” and downplays performances like his 228 rushing yards against Auburn. He knows better than anyone how performing in the biggest games counts the most.

“Everybody’s heads weren’t in the right place. That’s all it was,” Fournette said.

“We forgot our why. Why we work so hard, just to get here. We were on top of the world, 7-0, and we’re in the SEC, the hardest and best conference to play in. We just have to get that back.”

With 18 starters returning, few doubt LSU can match that start or that the returning consensus All-American can again make defenders look silly.

Consequently, Sports Illustrated recently listed Fournette first in its ranking of college football’s top 100 players for 2016, and former LSU running back Jeremy Hill called him the best player in college football. “That means a lot,” Fournette said, before adding that he’ll be saying the same thing about Derrius Guice next year.

Few who have faced him would argue the point.

“They are kind of freaky guys that are big, so you don’t expect them to move as fast as they do,” Mississippi State linebacker Richie Brown said about Fournette and Henry. “Players like that can really stress a defense.”

Fournette said he hasn’t been timed in the 40-yard dash at LSU, but he ran 4.36 in high school when he was a little smaller.

Miles has been encouraging him to lose some weight after he gained 10 pounds during the early offseason, getting up to approximately 235. He quickly complied, thus the food-related questions at media days.

“He wants to be able to have speed, strength, and the combination of the two is certainly the advantage for the elite back, and so we felt like that would happen somewhere between [225] and 231, and he’s right there,” Miles said. “Just where he needs to be.”

That statement could have contained a double meaning, as Fournette had to dismiss rumors that he considered sitting out his junior year to avoid the risk of injury heading into the NFL.

He’s already used to those kinds of questions, which go hand-in-hand with the high expectations, even if he doesn’t want to admit to being the face of the SEC this season.

“There’s multiple guys just like me in the SEC,” Fournette said. “I don’t mind sharing the platform with those guys like Chad Kelly, Nick Chubb, Jalen Hurd and, I think he’s a sophomore now, Calvin Ridley.”

But none of them are quite like Fournette.

        

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

Read more SEC Football news on BleacherReport.com


Source: Bleacher Report CFB

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