In a decade? So says the Sporting News college football preview. The next Adrian Peterson? Some say so. I thought I’d take a look.
I’m not one to spend any time on high school players. As I’ve heard from numerous coaches and football men the more stars next to a prep prospect’s names, the more entitled they behave. Sometimes that entitlement ruins a player’s potential.
But when a publication like the Sporting News cites a take that many share: LSU’s freshman runner 6’1″, 224-lb. Leonard Fournette is the best back to enter college football in a decade, it’s time to make an exception. I’m not going to break down Fournette’s game on a play-by-play level, but I will share what I saw from this highlight film:
Wait? He’s a Running Back?
UCLA’s Myles Jack earned offensive and defensive freshman of the year as a linebacker and runner. If LSU let him, I believe Fournette could have a shot at the same honor. Watch a few plays of him on this tape at linebacker (1:29 mark) and he jumps off the page with his reads, burst, and finishing power.
Unlike Jack, who the Bruins want to keep on defense, Fournette arrives in Baton Rouge as a runner.
Although bigger, faster, and more agile than most players he faced, Fournette consistently hits the hole with authority. Whether the hole was as wide as the Gulf of Mexico or a crease as tight as ironed slacks, Fournette takes what he sees and doesn’t dance.
What we don’t know is if Fournette changes his style after he gets a steady dose of SEC defenders smacking him in the mouth. I’m inclined to believe Fournette won’t lose his will with a jump in competition, but it is something to watch at this early stage of his career.
Fournette has an upright style. This alone never concerns me. Eric Dickerson, Eddie George, Adrian Peterson, Chris Brown, and Darren McFadden all have an upright style. Only McFadden’s style concerned me.
The rest of these runners knew how to attack defenders and generate good pad level to finish runs as needed. Fournette displays the same tendency. This is a powerful kid who can run with high knees. When a big back shows his opposition little else but knees, elbows, and shoulders, the defense is in for a long, hard day at the office.
Fournette runs like a boss that can drive you to take a permanent lunch break at 10:30 am.
Whether its turning the corner at the second level with a dip to the outside, a deep pass route, or a kick return, Fournette has the jets to turn a gain of 10-15 into a breakaway run. ESPN’s Tom Luginbill says Fournette is “a faster Todd Gurley.”
Fournette ran a 10.68-100 meter dash. My wife still holds her high school record in the 100 with 11.2 seconds – and 0.19 seconds slower than the current U.S. high school record — and he’s 100 pounds heavier than my wife was at the time.
Jeff Demps holds the record with 10.01 seconds (at least until Track and Field News ratifies Travis Friday’s 10.00-mark). It’s no exaggeration to say that Fournette is a big man with little man’s speed — and it’s likely he’ll learn to get faster on the field as he matures.
What really stood out were the multiple highlights of receptions where he was led into traffic, made the catch in stride, and maintained possession after contact. He looked liked a top tight end prospect on some of these seam routes.
Feet and Hips
Fournette varies his stride length, the pace of his stride, and he demonstrates that mind-eyes-feet integration to wait a split-second for a hole to open and blast through it. He also has the hip flexibility to bend to the edge and bounce plays away from a defender’s angle. He can use his feet and hips in conjunction to avoid wraps or angles the way I have seen the likes of bigger backs like Adrian Peterson or Ryan Mathews at the second level.
Like Peterson, Fournette can take those short steps to change direction and then accelerate down hill like he’s leaving the field in a 100-meter sprint. I haven’t seen any serious lateral cuts, but when you can flip your hips as quick as Fournett to change direction it’s an even better asset than one of those little-man jump cuts.
This stood out for me as much as anything I’ve seen on tape. He bounces off contact, he can maintain his footing with multiple changes of direction and he maintains his balance while running through contact where he has to vary his stride to avoid a wrap to his legs. When a back his size consistently gets his knees high and feet high off the ground to avoid wraps in traffic, it’s an indication that the back as serious promise.
Here’s another look at Fournette:
It’s unfair to label any player the best high school runner in a decade, but there’s no doubt he’s immensely talented. The key will be how he handles success and/or adversity. Author Elizabeth Gilbert makes a great point in this video that the brain does not distinguish between great success and massive failure. All it notes is that you’ve been flung far from what’s faimilar and it’s a difficult journey.
Fournette is on the precipice of this journey as a major college football player for one of the best teams in the country. He has pro players and celebrities talking about him and at least one expert saying that Fournette is better than any runner currently on the Saints. Add that statement to the fact he’s mentioned in the same tier as legendary Louisiana prep runners like Marshall Faulk, Matt Forte, Warrick Dunn, and Kevin Faulk and the expectations are huge.
If you remember, John Madden once told Monday Night Football audiences that he thought linebacker D.J. Williams could have gone to the NFL from high school and skipped the University of Miami altogether. Williams has had his moments, but he has never played to the level of the expectations set on him. Maurice Clarett was a freshman phenom. Reggie Bush was considered the next Gayle Sayers (LeSean McCoy is a better modern-day stand-in if you ask me.)
Fournette’s path is a difficult one and it has nothing to do with whether he’s a young man with a great or challenging family background. While a good background can be somewhat helpful, nothing can prepare anyone for the level of celebrity he’ll be earning if he plays to his potential.
Let’s wish him luck and health. If he has those two elements along with work ethic and maturity, he could be one of several gems at running back that we’re going to see for the next 3-5 years in college football.
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