In 2014, a former St. Augustine staffer told legendary LSU tailback Kevin Faulk that the Tigers had a “special” freshman tailback.
“Our strength coach at the time graduated from St. Aug and he told me about a freshman running back that they had,” Faulk said. “The first time I ever seen him play was in college — amazing.”
Faulk, LSU’s all-time leading rusher with 4,557 career rushing yards, knew now-junior Leonard Fournette’s name before they had even met.
Before seeing him play, Faulk had only known of Fournette through word of mouth.
Then they met.
“When we first met, he didn’t know me, I didn’t know him — we had to feel each other out,” Faulk said. “You can tell from just meeting him that he was a very grounded person.”
Surrounded by every local media outlet in Baton Rouge on Monday, with microphones and cameras echoing his every word, Fournette was asked about the pressure of attempting to top his record-breaking sophomore season.
In the eyes of some, it was arguably the best season for a running back in LSU’s program history.
“Nah,” Fournette said, shaking his head. “No pressure at all.”
Even though the 21-year-old has broken several records, some still remain.
“I haven’t shattered everybody’s records,” he said. “Kevin Faulk has a lot of records here.”
But to Faulk, it’s only a matter of time.
“Records are made to be broken,” Faulk told The Daily Reveille. “Very special people break records. He’s definitely a special individual on the football field and off the football field.”
On Sept. 3, No. 5 LSU will begin its football season with a 1,117-mile trip to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. And Fournette is at the forefront of it all.
‘Best running back to put on purple and gold’
On Saturday, Fournette will continue his run toward history.
His superiors are LSU greats Faulk, Dalton Hilliard and Charles Alexander — who are No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, on LSU’s career rushing list.
Although Faulk said it isn’t “his job” to rank LSU’s premier tailbacks, he feels it would be an “honor” for his records to be broken.
Hilliard and Alexander haven’t been able to meet Fournette yet, but they echoed the same sentiments as Faulk — Fournette is a well-rounded, grounded, tunnel-visioned tailback eyeing a National Championship.
“The humbleness carries from the young generationally aspect,” Hilliard said. “He’s focused and realized what chance and opportunity he has.”
Hilliard, whose 4,050 career rushing yards are second all-time for LSU — 1,063 yards ahead of Fournette — lauded the junior’s innate ability to deftly shift and accelerate at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds.
The first time Alexander watched Fournette play, he thought he would be a “solid” back.
But Alexander, like most Tiger fans, came to realize how “special” Fournette could be on Sept. 19, 2015.
Standing in the I-formation, Brandon Harris lobbed Fournette the ball as he trailed J.D. Moore, LSU’s fullback, inside the left tackle on a toss-dive to the left.
Fournette juked, evaded into open space along the sideline as Auburn safety Blake Countess leaped onto Fournette’s back before Fournette bucked him off, trotting into the end zone and thumping the No. 7 on his chest. Touchdown, LSU.
“That’s when I knew this kid was different,” Alexander said. “He’s going to be something special … He didn’t take one step up from his freshman to his sophomore year, he took ten steps up.
“He took it to a whole new level.”
After the bruising, defining run, Fournette crushed several of Alexander’s 38 year-old records. Like last season, 2016 may hold more of the same.
To become the all-time LSU career rushing leader, Fournette only needs to amass 1,570 yards — 383 fewer than 2015’s 12-game campaign — to pass up Hilliard, Alexander (4,035) and Faulk.
That’ll be easy, Hilliard said.
“He’s the best running back to put on purple and gold,” Hilliard said. “He’s not the leading rusher now, but he will [be] soon.”
Fournette on the field, Fournette the father
Fournette juggles being a Heisman candidate and a team leader, yet the task that’s most important to him is being a father.
His life changed one year ago with the birth of his daughter Lyric.
“She makes me grind harder by going to class more,” Fournette said. “It’s one of the best experiences for me, especially at my age.”
The responsibilities of fatherhood help with his “decision making,” translating directly to his leadership on the football field.
To senior center Ethan Pocic, Fournette’s wisdom can often go unnoticed.
“He’s incredibly smart,” Pocic said. “That’s something so many people don’t know. Just natural intelligence.”
While he doesn’t feel pressured to upstage his historic 2015 season, Fournette still wants to reach new heights this season.
Fournette’s goal is simply “to be better than last year.”
But being better than last season isn’t about stats or football to Fournette.
By his standards, his past two years as a student-athlete have made him “smarter” and a better “overall leader.”
The success that Fournette achieved the past two seasons at LSU is no surprise to NFL Draft Analyst Mike Detwiler.
Detwiler has had the opportunity to evaluate talent in Louisiana for nearly three decades, and he’s had the pleasure of watching NFL stars including Reggie Wayne, Marshall Faulk and Odell Beckham, while in high school.
However, there are only three players Detwiler would be willing to bet his house, cars, stocks and bonds on to become successful.
Those three players?
Two-time NFL champion Peyton Manning, nine-time pro bowler Ed Reed and Fournette.
Detwiler drew to one similar trait that all “great” players have when speaking of Fournette.
“All great players have one feature,” Detwiler said “They can compartmentalize life. They can take something, put it on the shelf and move on. Every superstar player has the ability to do that.”
‘Win a championship’
Fournette and junior safety Jamal Adams’ bond grew before they became teammates.
Moments before the top-ranked prospect in Louisiana announced his decision at the Under Armour Game in Tampa, Fournette tipped off Adams that he was committing to LSU.
“Ever since then, we’ve been tight,” Fournette said. “Now, being in college and seeing how fast those two years went by, it’s just crazy. Everything [that] we’re going through right now is what we pictured coming here in our freshman year.”
The personal records and accolades are a bonus, but they aren’t the only thing Fournette envisioned.
Fournette foresaw LSU in the thick of the College Football Playoff discussion.
The last time LSU played for a championship: 2011. The Tigers’ last championship trophy: 2007.
In what could be Fournette’s last season putting on an LSU helmet, his biggest accomplishment would be to bring home a title to Louisiana, he said.
“Nothing less,” Fournette said.