There is a buzz around the LSU football team. With several returning starters off last year’s nine-win team, many national analysts expect the Tigers to be on the short list of teams who have a chance to win the College Football Playoff in the fall. But while no one yet knows exactly how the story of LSU football in 2016 will be told, most agree that the plot will center around main characters Leonard Fournette, Brandon Harris and Malachi Dupre—three players who all come from different backgrounds but are now merged to be part of what many hope will be the best offense in the country.
BORN FOR THIS MOMENT
Leonard Fournette was born to be a football player in the Southeastern Conference. Just look at him. He’s the prototype size any athlete would want to be.
Standing 6-foot, 1-inch and weighing 230 pounds, Fournette possesses the ability to change directions on a dime. He runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds. He’s a wrecking ball in the backfield. He’s widely regarded as the best halfback in the country—if not the best in the past decade.
Scouts marvel over his potential. Barring injury, he will be one of the first players picked in the 2017 NFL Draft next spring. Heck, he would have been one of the top picks in 2016’s draft if he were old enough to be eligible to compete at the next level.
But Fournette’s arrival at the main stage of college football is a long time coming and is not a big shock to folks in the football community.
A New Orleans native, Fournette has been a dominant player his whole life.
As a small boy, folks in the metro area remember him for his size and ability to bulldoze through defenders.
One man who watched Fournette as a child remembers the young boy as a future star.
“He had it all,” said Willis Williams, a New Orleans native who watched Fournette play as a youth. “We all knew it then. We all knew someday Leonard would be on a big stage doing very, very big things.”
As a teen, Fournette prepped at St. Augustine. While with the Purple Knights, he became a man – one who was wanted by every major college in the country.
A multi-sport standout who dominated in both football and track, Fournette quickly became one of the best players in the country. He rushed for 7,619 yards and 88 touchdowns at St. Augustine. By the time he was a senior, he was widely regarded as one of the best college-bound players in the country – a consensus five-star prospect.
He did most of his damage on offense, but he also played defense when the Purple Knights needed him to. He did everything the team needed to compete against the highly competitive private schools which own the city.
In track and field, Fournette wasn’t too bad, either. He was an elite sprinter who excelled in the 100 and 200-meter dash.
“Leonard is everything you want a young man to be at this level,” his high school coach Cyril Crutchfield said during Fournette’s senior season. “He has the accolades. He has the awards. He has it all. But the most important asset he possesses is humility. He truly is a good young man.”
That humility was on full display when Fournette was a senior at St. Aug. When given an award for the best prep player in the New Orleans metro area, Fournette got on the stage and handed the trophy to a rival competitor at East Jefferson High School. He said the player – East Jeff quarterback Eugene Wells – didn’t get enough respect and deserved the trophy more than he did.
“He deserves it,” Fournette said. “That’s his award.”
Months later, Fournette signed with LSU. He chose the Tigers after getting scholarships from more than 100 programs around the country.
With LSU, nothing has changed. Fournette is a bruising power back who is rewriting the record books – just like he did at St. Aug.
Through two seasons, Fournette has nearly gained 3,000 yards. He is on pace to become LSU’s all-time leading rusher.
Last season, Fournette was considered a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. But as LSU’s season faded in November, so, too, did Fournette’s award hopes. He wasn’t even invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy Presentation.
Fournette admits that chasing the Heisman is tough work. He concedes that the chase took a lot of energy out of him in 2015.
At SEC Media Days last month, he said the goal for 2016 is simple – win a championship.
“My personal goal is to win a national championship,” he said with a smile. “Nothing else.”
While Fournette is chasing his first ring, Malachi Dupre is looking for another to add to a hand that’s filled with diamonds already.
Dupre prepped at John Curtis Christian Academy in River Ridge. While there, he grew into his long, lanky body and became a force.
Standing 6-feet, 3-inches and weighing 190 pounds, Dupre had an interesting prep career. He was widely regarded as one of the best high school receivers in the country.
But his stats never shined as bright as everyone else’s because he played for a Patriots’ offense that only throws the ball a couple times a game.
As a junior, Dupre caught 36 passes for 816 yards and 15 touchdowns. As a senior, his numbers were similar. They were very, very good, but they weren’t on par with the top players in the country because John Curtis is a run-heavy offense in their veer attack.
But none of that mattered to Dupre because the Patriots were a dominant force every Friday night. During Dupre’s time with the team, John Curtis thrived. In Dupre’s junior season, the Patriots won both the State Championship and also the National Championship. By the time he left the Patriots program, he had a handful of championship rings – some for football, but also a handful of state titles as a champion long, high and triple jumper.
“Malachi Dupre is a tremendous athlete,” local football analyst Mike Detillier said. “You look at his frame and you think that he’s a guy who can excel at any sport he chooses to. He has size. He’s a great leaper. He has the great ability to go up for the ball and make a play in mid-air. The pro scouts like seeing that. That’s something that will be a huge bonus to him in the future.”
By the time Dupre was a senior, he had an array of college offers and also a handful of championship rings to his credit. Like Fournette, Dupre was also a track and field standout – a competitor who won state titles in the long, triple and high jumps as a junior for John Curtis in 2013.
Patriots coach J.T. Curtis said during the poise Dupre showed during his career is admirable. During Dupre’s senior season, Curtis said he was proud of the young man that Dupre had become.
“He never has been a problem,” Curtis said. “A lot of times with these kids, they want to get the 1,000-yard seasons or the 20-touchdown seasons. But Malachi has always been dedicated to our team and to our on-field success. He’s bought in and has been a great player and teammate. He’s done an excellent job for us. He’s been a great leader.”
Dupre chose LSU, citing a desire to stay close to home. He could have played anywhere in the country. Many folks at the time of his decision thought he’d bypass the Tigers because of the struggles they’d had in the passing game in recent seasons under Les Miles.
“LSU is home,” Dupre said at the time of his signing. “I can’t wait to continue to represent the state and try and win a championship as a Tiger.”
As a Tiger, Dupre has taken some time to learn the ropes. As a freshman, he generated 318 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
Last year, he emerges and upped that production to 698 receiving yards with six touchdowns.
At the Manning Passing Academy, LSU quarterback Brandon Harris said he has added confidence in his abilities because he knows Dupre can make plays the average wide-out can’t make.
Harris even mentioned Dupre’s championship pedigree, adding that he knows how to win at the highest level – because he’s done it before.
“He’s a great guy, man,” Harris said. “We like having him in our huddle. It takes pressure off me. It puts me in a position to succeed because he makes so many plays. He can go up and bring the ball down from anywhere. It’s fun to see.”
FEELING THE PRESSURE
After a long day’s work tossing passes to receivers, LSU quarterback Brandon Harris logs onto Twitter.
While on the social media site, he clicks on an article about the LSU football team. In it, the rhetoric is always the same.
“They say I have to be better for LSU to take the next step,” Harris said at the Manning Passing Academy. “I accept that challenge. I embrace that challenge.”
For Harris, the weight of the LSU football nation is firmly on his shoulders.
It’s no secret that the Tigers’ quarterback play hasn’t been up to par in recent years. Many experts believe that if Harris takes the next step in 2016, so will LSU.
Many believe the quarterback’s successes – or failures – will decide how LSU’s season fares in the upcoming season.
But Harris isn’t afraid of it all. He’s been here before. At Parkway High School in Shreveport, Harris dominated for three seasons.
As a junior, he passed for 2,673 yards and 26 touchdowns. The next season, Harris was even better, tossing for 3,518 yards and 37 touchdowns – all while also rushing for 1,153 yards and 17 scores.
Parkway football coach David Feaster remembers seeing Harris play for the first time. Feaster said he knew he had something special.
Parkway went undefeated in Harris’ senior season and made the Class 5A State Title Game.
“He’s always had a powerful, powerful arm,” Feaster said. “He has many ways to beat you. He has a lot of weapons at his disposal.”
Harris chose LSU after being recruited nationwide. But unlike Fournette and Dupre, he was considered to be just a three or four-star prospect, depending on the recruiting service.
But it didn’t take Harris long to become part of LSU’s plans.
As a freshman, Harris passed for 452 yards and six touchdowns. He also rushed for 159 yards and three touchdowns.
But that was as a reserve.
In 2015, Harris became LSU’s starter.
He handled his time in the pressure cooker in stride. As a sophomore, Harris completed 149-of-277 passes for 2,165 yards and 13 touchdowns. He guided LSU to a 7-0 start and the No. 2 ranking in the country.
But Harris struggled to end the season and so did LSU’s hopes. The Tigers lost three of their final games to close out 2015 well outside of the National Championship picture.
Harris said the struggles were because of a sports hernia injury he suffered in the middle of the season – an injury he didn’t talk about until after the season.
“I didn’t want to make excuses,” Harris said.
But now fully healthy, Harris said the Tigers are ready to shine.
Harris said he reads social media and follows what’s said in the newspaper and online.
He said he knows people doubt his ability to guide LSU to the National Title.
“I know it’s out there,” Harris said.
But to the quarterback, the negativity doesn’t matter. Harris said he knows he has the support of his teammates and that’s all that matters to him.
Harris said he thinks he has the physical tools to get it done. He added that with teammates like Fournette and Dupre, his job becomes easier.
“We want to get it done this year,” Harris said. “We think we can do it – but we have to do it together. It’s not all me or all Leonard. It’s a team. We will fight together, win together, lose together. But we will always stay together – no matter what happens.”
Cover illustration by Gavin Michelli.