Search through history, and you'll find no shortage of running back talent from the state of Louisiana. From Dalton Hilliard to Eric Bieniemy to Warrick Dunn to Marshall Faulk to Kevin Faulk to the more recent success of Matt Forte, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, there's a deep, historic line of running backs hailing from the boot. And that's just a sampling of a pool of players that went on to successful collegiate and pro careers.
Yet, the 2014 signing class may produce the very best of them all. Leonard Fournette, the New-Orleans born super recruit, who has been blasting prep opponents since his freshman year (26 carries, 238 yards in his first ever HS game), brings to the field a rare combination of incredible athletic talents, classroom intelligence and off the field character. He's a unique prospect that's ascended to a level of mythology that only someone as special as Leonard Fournette could possibly match.
For many LSU fans, the pangs of 1.2.14 linger on. Presently, it's a day remembered as the day when LSU lost three five stars. But in three years, don't be very well surprised if it's a day we look back fondly upon as the day we landed Leonard Fournette.
But Fournette's not the only back in this class. Darrel Williams of John Ehret HS is an outstanding talent in his own right. Landing two top 250 running back talents in any class is a major coup. When your running back depth chart is as thin as LSU's currently is, it becomes a must.
247: #2 Nationally, #1 RB
Rivals: #4 Nationally, #1 RB
Scout: #1 Nationally, #1 RB
ESPN: #1 Nationally, #1 RB
What more can be said about Leonard Fournette? He's the 2014 247 Composite Player of the Year. He's been compared to Adrian Peterson, labeled the best RB prospect in the past decade. He's won every award imaginable, gotten a pile of scholarship offers deep enough to make a desk chair from, developed his own nation, and oh, by the way, committed to LSU.
You hate to foist unrealistic expectation onto the back of any 18-year-old, and college football tends to be a cold, cruel, unforgiving world that chews up the best and spits them right out, yet, Fournette seems somehow ready for it all. Like Patrick Peterson, there's an advanced maturity and focus there. Fournette says he wants to win the Heisman as a freshman. We mock players like Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Perrilloux for talking about four Heisman's, but Fournette says it... and it gives you pause to think. I mean, I'm not saying it'll happen; I'm just saying I'm not gonna be the way laying money against that.
But the unrealistic expectations are brought about by our own coaching staff. We've recruited 5-star RBs before. We've recruited top tier RBs many, many times under Miles and Saban. But we've never, to my knowledge, cleared the damn depth chart for one kid. Fournette was so important Miles mentioned him in his 2013 Signing Class press conference, then tweeted out this:
#Geaux Buga Nation !!!— Les Miles (@LSUCoachMiles) December 19, 2013
We passed on other backs, let underclassmen walk without a huge fight... all for.. Fournette. It isn't chance or circumstance that Fournette will step onto campus with the only two backs ahead of him being two seniors that have never carried the load for a season. Les Miles intended it this way.
Look, the coaches, evaluators and all else could be wrong. Maybe Fournette will just never be as good as we all think he can be. That's always a possibility. But it takes someone truly special for a school like LSU, who pulls in star studded recruit after star studded recruit to say, "We're clearing the way for you." It worked, and it's a damn gamble, but you can count me amongst those that won't be betting against Fournette. Let's go to the tape:
Top evaluators have worked hard to punch holes in Fournette's game. I've seen criticisms that range from questioning his long speed to his ability to catch the football. The fact that he consistently runs away from the competition and routinely lead his team in receiving as a Senior are enough evidence for me to dismiss that as merely people trying to find something, anything, to critique. Look at what his own head coach had to say:
"Leonard Fournette is the best I have ever seen – bar none," Crutchfield said. "Coaches I have spoken to in the state of Louisiana, some that are new and some that have been coaching over 30 years - they all agree with me that he is the best they have seen."
3:43 of highlight is enough to spot his considerable athletic talents. Fournette runs like a little man in a big man's body. He's every bit of 225 pounds, but as quick and light on his feet as any running back you'll see in this or any other recruiting class. Fournette does things that simply boggle the mind for a near 230 pounder. When I watch RB tape, the things I hope to see are vision and footwork. Everything else can be fudged with, but if you have great footwork and vision, you can probably be a very good RB. Fournette has both in spades. Toss in the power, speed, balance, intelligence that Fournette exhibits and you are talking about what is clearly one of the most elite prospects of the last decade.
The runs at the 2:50 and 3:22 marks say it all. Mere mortals get tackled for loss on those plays. GOOD running backs probably a minimal gain. For Fournette: Two Touchdowns. So while I hate to be one to continue to thrust hyperbole into the discussion surrounding Fournette. I'll go on record now: Leonard Fournette is worth every dripping bit of praise he's ever been given. He's the best LSU recruit... ever. Yes, better than Patrick Peterson. Better than Kevin Faulk. Better than any of them. He's dynamic, other worldly and irreplaceable.
What makes me so certain of his success is the rare character he exhibits. As we've seen with Richard Sherman, it's way too easy to incorrectly judge a player's character by the words he says in an emotional interview, but Fournette is a consummate example of class. He's the type of kid that gives up his awards to people he thinks are more deserving. He's genuinely humble and respectful, volunteering at a Nursing Home. He's overcome adversity. Even with the opportunity to make his recruitment a giant spectacle, Fournette quietly went about his business, took a couple of visits and made the choice he felt best for him. He's rare people.
247: NR Nationally, #23 ATH
Rivals: #145 Nationally, #11 RB
Scout: #262 Nationally, #24 RB
ESPN: NR Nationally, #77 RB
If you're hunting for name recruits and national entities, then Darrel Williams isn't your guy. That's not to say the John Ehret product is an undervalued quantity when it comes to recruiting sites. A composite 4-star, top 250 talent is hardly the type of player you shrug off. Featuring offers from Arizona State, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and a host of other D1 schools, it's clear that while Williams may not have been LSU's 1A option at RB, he's more than deserving of a scholarship.
Williams is a big back, listed at 6'0", 227 pounds. In HS, he did a little bit of everything, including play QB:
He waited patiently for his LSU offer, which didn't come down the pipeline until December of 2013. He committed to Arizona State, but decommitted upon receiving his LSU offer. The Tigers long entertained him as a prospect, but often tossing out the "athlete" promise, something which turned Williams off. He sees himself as a running back and a running back alone. Once LSU joined his vision, he quickly committed.
Williams doesn't share Fournette's insane athletic marvels, but if I go back to what I referenced earlier, give me footwork and give me vision and I'll give you a good running back. What I see from Williams is a guy who has both of those to go with good power. He lacks top end speed, but he reminds me a good bit of a similarly compactly built RB, Stevan Ridley.
It's important to note that LSU did value Sione Palelei over Williams. Palelei eventually decommitted and while I think he's the superior prospect, we're in need of backs that can provide immediate depth, and Williams is that type. I compared him to Ridley back in December, and I'm sticking to my guns there. Ridley fought for more tough yards than any LSU back we've seen in the past decade. He played behind an atrocious line with an atrocious set of QBs and still managed over 1,200 total yards and 15 total TDs his junior year. I don't throw out the comparison lightly. While Jacob Hester may be the barometer for "gritty, tough, grinder" LSU RBs, I can't put Ridley far behind.
If you want to draw the distinction between the two prospects, it's that Fournette gives you everything. He can grind, he can bust big plays, he can catch, he can do it all. I see Williams as a lesser version of that, and I mean that as no insult to his skills. Williams probably has the talent to be a solid SEC starter. He longed for an LSU offer, got it and committed shortly thereafter. If you don't think he'll step on campus hungry to prove he's better than Fournette, well, you'd be wrong. Now, can he do that? I don't think so. But hes a fine player in his own right. Don't be surprised if you see him get carries as early as this season.
None. Fournette and Williams are the two and both will ink to LSU on signing day. Adoree' Jackson is still in play, and he's a bit of a fastball on offense that could see some snaps as a runner, but he's hardly a pure RB.
What to Watch for on Signing Day
Not much. Enjoy Fournette signing that LOI.
For 2014, expect to see Magee, Hilliard and Fournette share the bulk of the carries. I, personally, won't be surprised if Fournette emerges as the best of the bunch early in the season. While I doubt he's the guy who sees the bulk of the carries against Wisconsin, it wouldn't shock me if he finished as the leading rusher for that game.
By virtue of the type of rotation we've pretty consistently run under Miles, I suspect Darrel Williams will see carries as well. He's ready, size wise. There are only three backs on the roster beyond him, so someone will need to take snaps in late blowouts, or even just to spell the top guys. Williams is that guy.
From a longer term perspective, LSU has already secured the commit of top 2015 RB Nichoals Brossette. Brossette is a top 100 talent. He's a big, bad dude. And he's got the type of frame that could step right in at the college level after Magee/Hilliard depart. His classmate, Derrius Guice, will likely be the other top target. Guice is a smaller, shiftier back, but a fine player in his own right.
As it stands, it's hard to project the future of the LSU RB core. Not a single back currently on campus will be apart of the team as early as 2015. That means playing time is available in spades. Fournette should be the man for the next three seasons, but even the best need breaks. Williams can provide that. As can Brossette. Guice provides a different look. If you look at the other three backs with offer from 2015, all fit the All-Purpose mold. It's clear the staff would likely to balance the approach and bring in backs that can offer a more versatile skillset than the downhill sledding of Williams and Brossette.
Yet we should be very clear about this: The present and future of the LSU RB group is Leonard Fournette.