By Andrew Alexander
Following the 31-28 Music City Bowl loss to Notre Dame last week, many LSU players and coaches fielded questions that they likely would have rather not heard. The opposite goes for Leonard Fournette, though. Instead, he was bombarded with queries about a potential Heisman Trophy candidacy for 2015.
It caught the LSU freshman running back off guard a bit, and with an unexpected giggle, he explained, “It doesn’t really matter to me.”
However, he has no plans in 2015 to strike up another Heisman pose like he did for his first career touchdown, which now seems like an eternity ago.
“That was a one time thing,” the budding star said, recalling a game against Sam Houston State back in September.
“A very special player”
The pose, perhaps, but Fournette looked every bit a future Heisman candidate last week. On just 11 carries in Nashville, Fournette managed 143 yards and two touchdowns, including an 89-yarder in the second half. The fabulous freshman also tacked on a 100-yard kick off return touchdown in the second quarter.
“I saw that everybody was on the ground,” Fournette said, looking back on his first career kickoff return for a touchdown. “I saw the gap and I took it. I was very tired at the end.”
While the loss stings, the individual performance certainly provides a springboard for both his and LSU’s future.
“Very special player,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Leonard Fournette distinguished himself in this game today.”
To say that the hype surrounding Fournette’s first year in the purple and gold had gotten out of hand would be selling it short.
From Fournette’s own Heisman aspirations to the comparisons to NFL All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson and NBA legend Michael Jordan, the hype was astronomical.
When the Tigers finally kicked off against Wisconsin in the 2014 season opener in Houston, it came as a shock to many that the mega-recruit failed to immediately light the world on fire. Fournette’s 18 yards on eight attempts against the Badgers left many LSU fans scratching their heads about the talent of the former St. Augustine running back.
Then, of course, there was the pose.
Against Sam Houston State in his first game in Death Valley Fournette ripped off a 40-yard run early in the first half putting the Tigers near the goal line. Fournette scored his first touchdown in the purple and gold on the next play, and celebrated by flashing the Heisman pose, much to the chagrin of many of fan and sportscaster. (For the record, this sports writer loved it.)
Broadcasting legend Brent Musberger supplied the perfect reaction to Fournette’s premature Heisman celebration on the call for the SEC Network in September when he remarked, “A little early for that pose young man, but I got your excitement.”
Fournette’s pose was the first memorable moment of his freshman campaign, but it certainly would not be his last. Against New Mexico State Fournette eclipsed 100 yards rushing and scored multiple touchdowns for the first time.
Fournette’s coming out party was in Gainesville, when the freshman ran wild over the Gators, amassing 140 yards and two touchdowns, including a rumble in the first quarter when the freshman barreled over a mass of Gator defenders into the end zone. Against Florida was also the first time Fournette has notched over 20 carries, finishing with 27 and showcasing his abilities to be a feature running back in the Southeastern Conference.
The freshman notched another superb game against Ole Miss, and while Fournette failed to find the end zone, he racked up over 150 yards and showed off his receiving skills with a timely 40-yard reception.
Year one of Buga Nation in Baton Rouge was not all sunshine and rainbows. There were times when the freshman running back looked overwhelmed and confused. Fournette tallied a pedestrian 38 yards in his first SEC game versus Mississippi State and was a non-factor in the Arkansas game, where he managed a measly nine yards on five carries.
Yes there were flashes of greatness, but for most of the season, Fournette could not even be called the best freshman running back in the SEC. That honor goes to Georgia running back Nick Chubb, who notched 1,547 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns to go along with 213 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Once Chubb took over for the suspended, then injured, Todd Gurley in early October, he gashed defenses and finished the season with eight straight games of over 100 yards, including two 200-yard performances.
On Thanksgiving night in College Station, Fournette showed the world why he is truly one of the most talented individuals to ever don the purple and gold with one single play.
Late in the second quarter Fournette took a handoff from LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings, blasted through a hole then eviscerated Texas A&M safety Howard Matthews near the 12 yard line before sprinting into the end zone for the first LSU touchdown of the night.
The run became a viral sensation among college football fans and conjured up memories of Herschel Walker’s near-identical run in 1980, when the Georgia freshman blasted Tennessee safety Bill Bates. The “My God, a freshman,” call from legendary Georgia play-by-play announcer Larry Munson appropriately filled the airwaves again 34 years later.
Fournette finished the game with 146 yards and the return of the preseason hype, as talk of his 2015 Heisman campaign began to circulate around the message boards and blogosphere.
The newly minted 2015 Heisman Trophy contender carried the momentum of his monstrous hit on Matthews into the Music City Bowl, where the Tigers faced off against Notre Dame.
Where Fournette had a game for the ages, even in a loss.
Fournette finished his freshman campaign with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns, surpassing former LSU running back Justin Vincent’s 1,001 yards in 2003 for the freshman single season rushing record.
Throughout the year, one got the sense that by the end of the season the freshman running back was on the brink of stardom, not fabricated recruitment over-hype stardom, but the kind of acclaim that comes from results on the field against formidable opponents in meaningful games.
The most telling evidence in regards to the maturation of Leonard Fournette both as a player and a man came when asked about the ceiling for his skills in 2015.
“I’m used to the game now,” Fournette said earnestly, “Now it’s time to perfect my craft.”
The rest of the college football world is officially on notice. Leonard Fournette is coming for you.