Sylve, a 6-0, 180 pound speedster, was named as a one of the players of the week by the coaching staff for his special teams effort against Texas A&M. A part-time secondary starter the last four seasons, Sylve recorded eight stops in as many games with three solo tackles in 2015. He has 32 tackles, 22 solo in 42 career games for Alabama with six pass deflections to his credit. Last season the South Plaquemines High School product replaced an injured Eddie Jackson in the second half of the Auburn game and responded admirably with three solo stops and two pass breakups in Bama’s 55-44 win over the Tigers. A near interception was ruled a simultaneous catch in the contest.
Fournette, a product of St. Augustine High School, is the perfect combination of size and speed to carry the ball in LSU’s downhill running scheme. The 6-1, 230 pound running back leads the nation in rushing yards (1,352) and yards per game (193.1) along with being ranked second in rushing touchdowns (15) and third in all-purpose yards (1,410). He surpassed the 1,000 single season mark in a school record five games, only the 10th FBS player to achieve that milestone. Highlight clips are neck and neck with the superlatives coaches express after facing the gifted running back.
Fournette has led LSU to a 7-0 record (4-0 in Southeastern Conference games) and the Tigers were ranked second in the inaugural College Football Playoff poll released Tuesday. Alabama is 7-1 overall and 4-1 in SEC games and was ranked fourth in the CFP poll.
All-America and national award candidates A’Shawn Robinson and Reggie Ragland are the mainstays of the Tide front seven assigned the task of slowing down Fournette, who averages a healthy 7.7 yards per carry. Sure tackling, maintaining gap integrity, and assignment football are paramount for the SEC’s number one rush defense (78.5 ypg) with visions of disrupting the league’s top ground attack. LSU is the lone conference team averaging over 300 yards per game at 309.1.
In last year’s 20-13 overtime win over LSU in Baton Rouge, Alabama held freshman Fournette to a manageable 79 yards on 21 carries and no touchdowns. Sophomore Fournette is on pace to become the school’s single season rushing leader surpassing Charles Alexander (1,686 yards in 1977). His 15 rushing touchdowns are just four shy of LaBrandon Toefield’s single season record of 19 (2011).
Great players never rest on their laurels, a true but frightening thought for opponents. LSU Coach Les Miles said, “Leonard continues to work his skills. I think he is bigger, faster, and stronger. His ball skills have always been very good. He had a great summer coming into camp.” Presumably unable to help himself, Miles added, “I think his work ethic and enjoyment of football allows him to continue to improve.”
Prior to facing LSU on the road in mid-October, Florida was surrendering only 99.2 ypg and ranked second in SEC rush defense at the time behind Alabama (77.3 ypg). Fournette rushed for 180 yards on 31 carries and hit pay dirt twice in a 35-28 Tiger victory. Gators Coach Jim McElwain had this advice for Nick Saban and company, “He’s (Fournette) going to get his but I think more than that it is just making sure you eliminate the explosive plays. Don’t focus on him solely because they have a quarterback and playmakers all over the field. I know Coach Saban will have a great plan for him and yet have a great plan to win that ball game.”
Minutes later on the Wednesday SEC teleconference Bama Coach Nick Saban said, “Leonard was an outstanding player last year. I think (he has gained) maturity, confidence, probably knowledge and experience. The guy is a fantastic running back. He is fast, strong and very instinctive as a runner. He makes a lot of people miss. He has enough power to break tackles when he needs to. His yards after first contact are phenomenal. We’ve always known he is a good receiver and they have used him. There has been more of that (receiving) this year. He has been very effective at it.”
The LSU run defense, second in the SEC allowing only 93.7 rushing yards per game, must contend with Alabama’s talented tailback Derrick Henry (1,044 yards, 130.5 yards per game, 5.8 yards per carry, 14 TDs). The 6-3, 242 pound bruising running back is within striking distance of the 2011 Trent Richardson single season record for rushing yards (1,679) and touchdowns via the ground (21). “Henry is just a very talented, big strong, capable back,” said the Tigers coach. “He continues to improve and Alabama gives him things that he can do and do well.”
Saban has relied on the SEC’s second leading rusher the entire season. There is no reason to climb onto a different thoroughbred for this race to the SEC Western Division Championship. “Derrick has had an outstanding year for us,” Saban said. “He has been a real work horse for us. He’s a guy that’s fast and hard to tackle and can break tackles as well. He does a good job in every other thing that a running back has to do whether it’s block or catch or whatever. We have been really pleased with the way he has performed all year long.”
Cyril Crutchfield, now the head coach at West Jefferson High School in Harvey, La., sat down with BamaMag.com on Sunday morning to discuss two players – Bradley Sylve and Leonard Fournette. He even gave a few clues on a defensive plan to cage a runaway Tiger viewed by many destined to be the best running back in LSU history. Fournette and Henry may not determine the outcome but all eyes will be on two of the most outstanding ball carriers ever to compete in this rivalry.