Leonard Fournette speaks loudest when he is quiet.
The impact of his shoulder pads against a helpless defensive back is rarely heard over the roar of the Tiger Stadium crowd. He causes stadiums on the road to sound more like abandoned Blockbuster Video stores when he runs away from the other team’s entire defense and crosses the goal line, as he did 23 times in 2015. And he does not have to say a thing to teach the other LSU Tigers how to play their best.
“I look up to him. And it’s really great when you’re behind somebody that you look up to, and you kinda flash the same ability he does whenever you do get the opportunity,” Derrius Guice, sophomore running back, said.
Fournette is the most highly regarded college running back of the last decade, in large part because of his physical gifts. He is both larger and faster than most running backs, with the agility to leap over a defender, the strength to knock a would-be tackler off his feet, and the nastiness to throw one to the ground if he has the audacity to remain standing. YouTube is full of examples of his breathtaking moments such as against Auburn last year, when he ran through a defender for one touchdown, then scored another after sidestepping two players and shaking off another who nearly jumped over him.
Guice said he has learned from Fournette “just how to be aggressive when you have the ball. Not that I haven’t already been aggressive, but just watching him do it, it makes you wanna go harder because you see one of your own doing it.”
Fournette will be a junior this year, which means he is eligible for the 2017 NFL draft, and he could become the first running back selected first overall in 22 years.
Jacob Hester, a former LSU running back who spent five years in the NFL, said he believes nothing stands between Fournette and a Hall of Fame career.
“Most of the time when you see guys with his talent, they don’t put in the work that he does,” Hester, now an analyst for CST, explained. “Being around the program, he puts in more work than anybody and I think that’s what separates him. Obviously, he’s got size and speed that a lot of people don’t have, but I think it’s his day-in and day-out routine that makes him Leonard Fournette.”
“He’s always been really a pretty quality leader as well,” head coach Les Miles added. “When I ask this room for leadership, I certainly ask him as well.”
Like Fournette’s talent as a runner, there are two aspects to his leadership style. With younger players, Fournette is more likely to lead by example. Guice, who is one year younger and second on the depth chart, is the player who fans hope learns most closely from Fournette.
“I expected to learn a lot from him. He’s like my role model. That’s my big brother. I expected to watch him do great things and give him a breather every now and again,” Guice mentioned.
Both players had outstanding Louisiana prep careers and both were highly regarded recruits. Guice said he tries to emulate Fournette’s style to wear down opposing defenses and tries to match his success.
”I see Leonard break off a 50-yard run and I get amped,” he explained. “I’m trying to do the same. I’m trying to break off another 50-yard run or put somebody on their back. You know, just keep the flow of the game going, keep the coaches into it, keep the tempo up.”
But when the running backs studied their film, Guice realized that Fournette’s patience behind the line of scrimmage is what allows him to fully utilize his gifts in the open field.
“As a hungry guy, I don’t wanna get stopped in the backfield, you know, I’m just ready to go through the hole. And I started noticing, as I watched the film, that I’m missing the big holes,” Guice recalled. “So I was getting two or three yards when I could’ve been getting five to 10 yards. So the biggest thing Leonard is teaching me is patience, and how to read the blocks.”
Fournette also gets to show his younger brother, Lanard, a redshirt freshman running back, what it takes to be a star at the collegiate level.
“I love it,” Leonard Fournette said of having his younger brother on the team. “Going home, he’s finally feeling what I’m feeling: he goes home, does his homework, and goes straight to sleep. So that’s a good thing!”
Fournette was the top-ranked recruit in high school when he left St. Augustine High School for LSU. Miles admitted this spring that he is not trying to add any new skills to Fournette’s repertoire, but rather refining the skills he already possesses. Fournette echoed that sentiment by saying leadership is the area in which he most wants to improve. He mentioned that he works with his coaches and counselors to improve his motivational techniques.
Most of the time, his message is simple. “Just hard work, give it their all, and that’s all I ask for,” he said.
Just as he carefully chooses his words with the media, he changes his leadership style depending on his audience. He is hardest on those from whom the most is expected: upperclassmen and the team’s other stars.
“Overall, all the leaders on the team have pushed each other,” he said of LSU’s spring practices. “That’s to show up on time, show up earlier. Even if you gotta go pick teammates up if they don’t have a ride. You know, just the little things that help us win a national championship.”
Fournette entered LSU with the vaunted 2014 recruiting class. Fournette, quarterback Brandon Harris and wide receiver Malachi Dupre spend a lot of time together and have the highest profiles of anyone on the Tigers’ offense. They also have the highest standards for each other.
“We all are perfectionists, we want to say,” Harris stated. “We know where we need to be and we know when we’re not getting it done. So I look for guys like that, as those are the guys who are going to tell me what’s the honest truth.”
Fournette will also go out of his way to praise walk-ons, saying their role is “10 times harder than ours, because they’re still fighting for a scholarship”. They may not get to take the field on Saturdays and have little shot at NFL glory, which in a way makes them Fournette’s ideal teammates.
“The main goal to me is: don’t forget our why,” Fournette described when asked to explain the Tigers’ motivation over the summer. “You know, why you started playing football, why this, why that. That’s just the main reason, the foundation … where it starts.
“At the end of the day, don’t let this game define what type of person you are. We went through that losing streak [in 2015] and it kind of got some of us, but I think we pulled it back together. And as a team, it was up to us. Not worrying about what the outsiders say, just focusing on what’s inside with us.”
Hester thinks Fournette is already the best running back in school history, and many outsiders believe he is on the path to the Hall of Fame. But you will not hear that from him. The most you will hear is the crack of his shoulder pads as he flattens another defender standing between him and the end zone.