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Hype & Circumstance: Leonard Fournette and What Are Reasonable Expectations?

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There may be no way to meet the hype, but that doesn't mean we can’t try to distill this to something reasonable.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Paul said it on Friday, and it's true. If you have even a casual understanding of recruiting, you've known the name Leonard Fournette for a couple of years now. He's always been this vague specter out in the distance. Some sort of goal that a part of the program was working towards.

Now he's here. So what now?

We all know about the hype. Not only has Les Miles embraced it, but the consistent refrain from the young man himself is that LSU fans can't put any larger expectations on him than he has put on himself. Truthfully, that's exactly what Miles is talking about when he references Michael Jordan -- that Fournette is an insanely driven person that is always working to get better.

But how does all that translate to expectations for 2014?

It's one thing to throw out words and phrases like "superstar," "All American" or "Heisman." But it's another thing to try and distill it in real, hard terms like carries and yards.

BUT I DIDN'T BECOME A BLOGGER TO DO THINGS THE EASY WAY!

(/sits down at desk with laptop)
(//complains about free wifi)
(///sips coffee dismissively)

So anyway, let's start with the baseline of the player that Fournette has been compared to the most often: Adrian Peterson. In 2004, AD rushed for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns, helping to lead Oklahoma to an undefeated regular season and appearance in the BCS Championship Game while becoming a Heisman-Trophy finalist in the process.

Here's the season, game-by-game:

Cauy5jr_medium

via i.imgur.com

Couple of things to keep in mind: Oklahoma, coming off a pass-happy 2003 that saw Jason White win the Heisman, was very much looking to re-establish itself as a power running team so there were carries to go around; Peterson didn't get the start in that first game, that honor went to KeJuan Jones; and while 100 yards is still a heck of a debut, Peterson also fumbled twice in his first six carries (losing neither -- still, bad) against a MAC school. AD didn't really break on to the scene until that week three win over Oregon with 183 yards, and things were all downhill from there.

The truth is that chances are low that Fournette comes close to Peterson's '04 numbers for one reason more than any other -- the 344 times Peterson touched the ball that year. In the previous nine seasons under Miles, no running back that has played for LSU has ever touched the ball more than 260 times. That's no small difference. Stevan Ridley hit that number in 2010 (249 carries plus 11 receptions) on a team that averaged just 155 passing yards a game -- the absolute nadir of LSU's passing struggles under Jordan Jefferson & Jarrett Lee. Rotating backs and keeping fresh legs in a game has been a constant under Miles, especially since Frank Wilson has become the running backs coach. There have certainly been lead backs like Ridley, Charles Scott or Jeremy Hill last season, but if another back has the hot hand he's going to get the ball as well -- five different backs have had 100-plus yard games in the last three seasons, and backup Michael Ford had several 80- & 90-yard days himself.

Hell, most recruiting experts would even tell you that a big part of LSU's recruiting pitch to Fournette was the idea that he wouldn't receive an undue workload. As the NFL Draft continues to devalue the running back position, mileage becomes an increasingly important factor, and Fournette almost surely doesn't want to end up like a Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Ryan Matthews, Donald Brown or Knowshon Moreno, who each were drafted high with most of the tread off their tires, so to speak.

A couple other factors to consider:

  • Terrence Magee is no KeJuan Jones. The senior rushed for 626 yards on 7.2 per carry last year. While he doesn't have the workhorse size of a Fournette or a Hill, at 215 pounds, it's not like he's a dinky scat-back type either. He's not only earned carries, but with three 100-yard games last year he's shown that he can handle it if the offense needs to lean on him a little.

    And then there's fellow senior Kenny Hilliard, who's never really recaptured the form he showed at the end of his freshman season, but has been an effective short-yardage back.

  • The flip side there being, that Fournette is just an injury or two away from those veterans to seeing his load increase out of necessity.

  • LSU returns possibly the best offensive line of the Miles Era. A big, physical group that has always been good at pushing people around and reportedly is focused even more on technique under new position coach Jeff Grimes.

  • The passing game situation is completely green. New quarterbacks AND new receivers. This could affect things a couple of ways. LSU ran the ball about 62 percent of the time in 2013, and while it's certainly likely that number could increase, it's important to note that at the 2013 pace (65 plays a game), the run-pass balance could skew all the way to 70 percent and it would only net another five rushes per game.

  • But as an additional note on that run/pass ratio: it's not out of the question for LSU to actually throw the ball a little more often. The Tigers only threw the ball 25 times a game last season, and that's because they were so good at generating big plays that they could drive down the field quickly in only a few attempts. And there may be times that the Tigers need to throw a couple more times to get a similar result. Five-play drives that featured two big pass plays and a couple of runs may turn into eight-play drives with a three or four shorter throws. Things like this will change over the course of a game and a season.

  • It's also been widely reported that with two more mobile quarterbacks the offense will incorporate some zone-read and option elements. This could mean more carries for back OR a QB, it just depends on the defense.

Hill serves as a solid stand-in for Fournette for a number of reasons. He's not only been the most productive running back on a single-season basis since the 1990s, but he's of a similar style to Fournette. Big, fast with a pretty complete game: sees the field well, understands play concepts and an asset in the passing game. In 2013, Hill touched the ball 221 times in 12 games -- 203 carries plus 18 receptions. That seems like a pretty good over/under point to start with. Could Fournette touch the ball more? Absolutely, especially when you consider that Hill was suspended for LSU's season opener last season, a game where he almost certainly would have picked up more carries. But for all the reasons outlined above, the number could fluctuate under as well.

As for the yardage, that will come with the carries. Barring injury (/knocks on every piece of wood in the house //sacrifices a goat ///throws salt over shoulder), the production will be there. The question is more one of opportunity.

Still, I thought it would be a good idea to seek some outside opinions on this issue. For starters, two guys that have covered Fournette as much as anybody, the team of Culotta & the Prince -- ESPN Baton Rouge's Derek Ponamsky:

I think it is reasonable to expect that Leonard Fournette's freshman year will be better than what LSU has seen from other backs in their first year under Frank Wilson. He is a much more advanced back in pass protection and that is huge for getting on the field for Wilson.

Look at the early part of the freshmen seasons of Kenny Hilliard and Jeremy Hill.

That time will not be lost on Fournette, and that is going to lead to a much more productive start to Fournette's career.

LSU had 428 carries by the running backs in 2013, they added 30 catches. That is a total of 458 total touches by the running backs.

Hill had 221 of the total touches, an average of 17 touches per game.

Terrence Magee had 92 touches and Kenny Hilliard had 69 touches in 2013.

I think it is realistic to think that Darrell Williams will have a role in the 2014 offense. I also think it is much harder to project how many touches he gets than Fournette.

So let's just say Williams gets 50 touches as a freshman.

If you add the touches of Magee and Hilliard, and add in the Williams number, you have 211 touches from the 2013 number of 458.

If you give Magee and Hilliard a 15-percent increase you get 243 touches. That still leaves 215 touches for Fournette. That would be an average of 16.5 touches per game in a 13 game season.

That seems about right......

And Jordy Culotta:

Once LSU offered a spot on the roster, colleges around the country flocked to New Orleans to see what was so special about him.  They soon saw that Leonard Fournette has the rare combination of size and speed, comparable to Adrian Peterson and Walter Payton.  The five-star tailback from St. Aug handled the recruiting process with a wisdom that surprised many.

After "the summer of hype," staffers, teammates, and coaches say that Fournette sets the tone for work ethic in pursuit of a championship.  The most heralded prospect in the class of 2014 is as driven as any fourth year senior.  As La'el Collins gushed at SEC Media Days, "Seeing the will of Fournette and these young kids makes it fun for me to come to work."  There are no traces of a five-star attitude, and he knows he has to earn everything this year.

Behind Collins and the rest of the stout offensive line, Fournette will share carries with two seniors, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee, along with fellow freshman Darrell Williams. LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson has kept many stars happy while sharing carries. This is something that intrigued Fournette throughout the recruiting process.  While everyone in the country was selling Fournette to come in and be the workhorse, Wilson convinced Fournette to come to LSU, stay fresh, and chase championships.  In my opinion, he will get 17-20 touches per game.

Fournette's path will be fast tracked to the field with his ability to pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. I look for him to be a part of the game plan starting week one against Wisconsin and see that role expand throughout the season.  Fournette will continue to respond to his star status with maturity, professionalism, humility, and production.

The hype is real, people.  Get on board now. Leonard Fournette will be the truth.

Since Fournette will be gracing the cover of their preview issue, I thought it would be a good idea to reach out to Tiger Rag Editor Robert Stewart:

My standard answer to this question has been "around 800 to 900 yards rushing, with maybe seven touchdowns." The touchdown number is a little more arbitrary, because it seems like we never know who will score the most touchdowns in this offense. The rushing number feels on the low side, but I still think it's realistic given the running backs LSU has this season. It also lines up with what Kevin Faulk rushed for as a freshman at LSU, and given the hype surrounding both Fournette and Faulk coming out of high school, it's really easy to compare them, even though Fournette is probably a better athlete than Faulk was -- which is saying a lot.

Fournette has all the physical tools (speed, size, vision, etc.) to be LSU's leading rusher, and he'll have a fun time running behind that incredibly experienced offensive line. But we all know he's going to split carries with Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard. Magee is no slouch, and I think he'll run for about 600 to 700 yards. But Magee is no Fournette, which is why Fournette will probably become the starter by the end of the season and could get most of his yards in the last six games or so.

Then again, I could be totally wrong. Maybe Fournette will rush for 1,800 yards and win the Heisman. He has that kind of ceiling. We just won't know until he (and those other backs) hits the field.

The problem in judging Leonard Fournette -- and the benefit for LSU's football team -- is that he's such a different prospect from anything we've seen in a long time, maybe ever.

Fournette has probably the best combination of self-awareness and humility I've ever seen from an LSU athlete. He understands his physical abilities, and he seems fully aware of the mountainous expectations already laid upon his 19-year-old shoulders. He knows he's supposed to be Superman. But he seems to realize how hard he'll have to work to make those dreams a reality. Les Miles and Frank Wilson have both praised his work ethic several times now. If there's any former high school superstar who can handle these expectations, it's Leonard Fournette.

One important caveat: I've never talked to Fournette before. So I'm judging all of this based on the stories I've read about him. But the same compliments about him keep popping up over and over again, which is leading me to buy into the hype. I'd proclaim him as the next Adrian Peterson if he didn't have two senior running backs ahead of him already.

And former editor Luke Johnson, now covering Acadiana sports for The Advocate:

Expectations have to be derived from history. Look at what Jeremy Hill did last year -- the guy averaged almost seven yards a pop as the featured tailback and still only received more than 20 carries in four games. Even if Fournette is better than Hill, which I think is incredibly dangerous to assume, it's hard to imagine him putting up huge numbers right away. LSU has and will continue to operate with a timeshare in the backfield. It's reasonable to expect somewhere around 800 or 900 rushing yards from Fournette with a possibility of going higher, but I wouldn't think he'd approach what Jeremy Hill did last year, and that's fine.

The issue I have with the expectations being put on Fournette's shoulder is that the majority of the people who are claiming he'll be the next this, or the next that have never actually seen him play in person. Everything that's being expected out of this guy is simply because he has been tabbed No. 1 for the last couple of years, and people have heard about his freakish size and speed combination. What I would ask is that people employ the mindset his old high school offensive coordinator Kyle Gilbert is using: enjoy Leonard Fournette's growth as a football player naturally without any preconceived notions of what he's supposed to be.

The point of this piece wasn't to establish some sort of pass/fail point that will be the lone factor in determining what will be a successful season for Fournette. Not only is that not fair to an 18-year-old kid, frankly it's just kind of stupid. Some of the best freshman seasons in LSU history didn't net Heisman trophies or eye-popping numbers. Still, the fact remains that the Tigers are bringing in a superstar with a level of hype we've never seen before -- and we've seen a lot of recruiting hype. His performance will be a story, and a big one.

And as reasonable as it is to try and use past history and tendency to project how Fournette will perform, remember that this is not just some run-of-the-mill five-star recruit. Fournette has the potential to be both a game-changer and a mold-breaker. He has a special combination of talent and drive that we just don't see that often, and if there's ever been a thoroughbred for an LSU offense to ride, it's him. And quite frankly, he just might be that damn good.

Either way, it's going to be a whole hell of a lot of fun to watch.