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Three Years And A Cloud Of Dust

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Reflecting on the singularity that was Leonard Fournette

Mississippi v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

On September 6th, 2014, Anthony Jennings tossed the ball to Leonard Fournette on one of LSU’s signature toss dives. Fournette took the ball and made the slightest of leaps over an eliminated Sam Houston State defender and scooted into the endzone nearly untouched. What happened next would live in LSU football lore forever.

Fournette then struck the Heisman pose, nearly in the same spot of the endzone that Patrick Peterson did four year prior, in the exact same number that Fournette wore.

This was the highly touted freshman’s first collegiate touchdown, and it was received as such.

“It’s a little too early for that pose, young man” was the call from famed play by play commentator Brent Musberger. Head coach Les Miles was inclined to agree, meeting Fournette as he came off of the field to give him an earful for the act.

Nobody knew it at the time, but it was as close to the Heisman trophy that Leonard Fournette would ever get.

Fournette was the absolute “can’t miss” prospect of all the “can’t miss” prospects. During his high school career at St. Augustine in New Orleans, Fournette existed as a singularity. His highlight tape tells of qualities that should be contradictory yet remain true. He could burn past cornerbacks as easily as he could bowl over linebackers and he could sidestep defensive lineman effortlessly before stopping his momentum on a dime and reverse direction. He was not a scatback and he was not a bruiser, he was Leonard Fournette. Stick around scouting long enough and you will realize it’s one large name game: taking an athlete and describing their skillset in terms of their predecessors, a way to give the general public some kind of context as to what kind of player an athlete is.

There was never any of that with Leonard Fournette. Depending on who you asked, you got an unholy mishmash of insane talent: as physical as Herschel Walker (if asked, many would say Walker was the closest to Fournette in terms of running style), as quick as Eric Dickerson, and possessing the vision of Barry Sanders. At 230 pounds, he could run to speeds as high as 20 miles per hour, much faster than most cornerbacks who weigh up to 50 pounds less.

When he got to LSU, Fournette would don the now-famous seven jersey in honor of his home in the seventh ward of New Orleans, the first to wear the number since (fellow St. Augustine alum) Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off the team. While 18 has become the number worn by team captains that is selected by a panel of players, coaches, and former 18s, starting with Patrick Peterson the seven jersey has been attached to the hands down best player on the team only with the blessing of the previous seven. Fournette has worn the seven well.

During his time at LSU, Fournette has been exactly as advertised. He has ripped off long scoring runs and he has destroyed would-be tacklers. He has thrown cornerbacks and he has broken ankles. But one thing he has never done is bring home the Heisman.

Recently there has been a pushback against the Heisman. A common criticism of the most coveted individual trophy in all of college football is the fact that more often than not it is awarded to the best player on the best team, and not the “actual” best player in college football.

After coming into his own late in his freshman year, Fournette lived up to the high hopes that had been laid for him in his sophomore season, highlighted by the systematic obliteration of two Auburn defensive backs. In October, he all but had the Heisman locked up.

And then came Alabama. Undefeated LSU went to Tuscaloosa to play undefeated Alabama, and Alabama remained undefeated to extend their dominance over LSU. But that’s not what was memorable from that game. What is given the most attention is the fact that Alabama held Leonard Fournette to just 31 yards of rushing, effectively killing his shot at the Heisman. Sean Taylor once famously said that big time players make big time plays in big time games and Fournette, in the biggest stage of his career up to that point, did not make big time plays. Fair or not, his status as the best player in college football was challenged because he failed to run on one of the best defenses ever assembled in college football.

Before his junior year, Fournette sustained an ankle injury in pre-season camp. He would play in the first few games of the season, but it was noticeable that he was not running at full speed. Late in the game against Auburn, Fournette was cut down by the ankles and had to limp off of the field. Fournette would miss the first few games under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, but would make a statement in his return against Ole Miss.

Against the Rebels, Fournette finally ran down the record he had been chasing his entire college career as he put up 284 yards on just 16 carries. It was reminiscent of the western trope where the music and shenanigans inside the saloon come to a screeching halt whenever a certain somebody comes walking through the door. College football had been casually reminded of the power of Leonard Fournette.

But for the second year in a row, Alabama shut down the Tigers and Fournette, this time only allowing 35 yards. Once again, any hope Fournette had at the Heisman was over. The music was playing again.

At any given point in college football, there are four to five players that stand heads and shoulders above all rest of the talent. The age of Fournette also coincided with the rise of Deshaun Watson at Clemson, Christian McCaffery at Stanford, and Dalvin Cook at Florida State. None of which have won a Heisman.

And when they all leave college to begin their professional careers with (likely) a combined zero Heismans, their legacies should not be remembered for the lack of stiff armed trophies. Fournette is no different. When Fournette’s time at LSU will be remembered, the injuries and frustrations that came at the hands of Alabama’s dynasty should not be the first thing that come to mind. Fournette will leave LSU without any major trophies, but instead we have memories. In the future there may be better running backs than Leonard Fournette, but we will always be lucky to see a true original play with opposing defenses.

During Fournette’s final flame against Ole Miss, the ultimate Leonard Fournette moment happened. With a head of steam and open field, he ran over freshman defensive back Deontay Anderson. Fournette trucked Anderson so hard that for a second, Anderson was standing on his head as Fournette rumbled downfield.

The hit wasn’t special, there were dozens of cases of hits just like that during Fournette’s three years in purple and gold. What made the moments special was when the hit was plastered all over the internet, as most posterizations are these days. Anderson was cited as being Fournette’s latest victim in every article, but also included in some were words of appreciation for the freshman defensive back for attempting to square up on Fournette instead of merely trying to force him out of bounds and getting right back up after receiving the punishment.

Such is the power of Leonard Fournette: doing your job as a defensive player and squaring up for a tackle against him is worthy of admiration.