<
>

Sky-high expectations nothing new for Jaguars' Leonard Fournette

play
Berry moving Fournette down draft list (1:38)

Matthew Berry reacts to the news that Leonard Fournette will be sharing carries in the Jacksonville backfield. (1:38)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The expectations for Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette are sky high.

He's the odds-on favorite to be the NFL Rookie of the Year.

The best running back in franchise history called him a "beast."

Executive VP of football operations Tom Coughlin told Fournette they drafted him fourth overall "to put the ball in the end zone."

Win awards. Surpass 1,200 yards. Score touchdowns. Elevate a franchise that hasn't had a winning record since 2007 and has lost 11 or more games each of the past six seasons. All that is falling upon the broad shoulders of a 22-year-old who will be playing in his first NFL preseason game on Thursday night.

Yet to Fournette, that's nothing new. He's been dealing with immense expectations on the football field since he first put on pads. He'll attack these the way he did when he was starring at LSU and St. Augustine High School in New Orleans: by shrugging them off.

"To me, it never was pressure," Fournette said. "You expect that from yourself. All the work you put in, you expect to succeed.

"I'm a firm believer if you work hard, at the end of the day, you'll get what you came for."

That's not arrogance. That's acknowledging history, because Fournette has met -- and exceeded -- the enormous expectations at every level. The NFL is just the next logical step.

"This kid was a legend when he was 5-, 6-years-old when he started playing football," said David Johnson, Fournette's high school coach for three seasons and now the wide receivers coach at Memphis. "He always had those expectations."

Fournette was a youth football star in New Orleans. He was bigger and faster and stronger than the other kids his age and was running around and over everyone so regularly that opposing coaches were demanding to see his birth certificate.

At 12 years old, opposing parents signed a petition to get him banned, so it's easy to see why Fournette was already a football legend in New Orleans by the time he set foot at St. Augustine High School in 2008. It didn't take long for the legend to grow, either.

Fournette rushed for more than 1,000 yards over his first three games as a ninth-grader, and that's all Frank Wilson, the recruiting coordinator and running backs coach at LSU, needed to see. He offered the 14-year-old Fournette a scholarship.

"Everybody thought at the time that Frank Wilson was crazy," Johnson said. "We are from New Orleans, and we coached at [Landry-Walker College and Career Prep] together and he asked me, 'Dave, how good is he?' I said, 'He is the best running back I've ever seen in my life. It's not even close.'"

By the time Fournette was a senior, he was a consensus top-five recruit in the nation, and Scout.com ranked him No. 1 overall, one spot ahead of now-Jaguars teammate Cam Robinson and four spots ahead of Myles Garrett, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft.

He also was the subject of a documentary produced and directed by Kenny Chenier. "The Road to Stardom: The Leonard Fournette Story" premiered on Louisiana Public Broadcasting two days before Fournette played in his first game for LSU.

Even before his first practice with the Tigers, then-LSU head coach Les Miles compared him to one of the greatest athletes of all time.

"He expects himself to be something very special," Miles said at the annual SEC media days in 2014. "I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting him to be better than any."

And Fournette was. He broke the LSU freshman rushing record by gaining 1,034 yards and followed that up by breaking the school's single-season records for rushing yards (1,953) and rushing touchdowns (22). Though he struggled with an ankle injury in 2016, he still rushed for 843 yards in seven games before declaring he was skipping his senior season.

Four months later, he was the fourth overall pick by a franchise that hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2011 and ranks last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (92.1) since then.

All the Jaguars need is for him to have the same kind of impact Ezekiel Elliott had for Dallas in 2016. Elliott led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards, but he did it running behind what's regarded as the best offensive line in the league. Fournette certainly doesn't have that advantage, but he's still saddled with immense expectations from a hungry fan base -- and even some of his teammates.

"I knew about Leonard since he was in high school. He's going to be very talented in this league," second-year linebacker Myles Jack said. "He's very sturdy, very strong, good pass protector. He can catch; he can do it all. I wouldn't be surprised if he rushes for a good amount of yards. He'll be a big part of our offense. I expect big things from him.

"He’s very talented, he's everything they say he is, and he'll be very valuable to this team."

Pressed for what he meant by "a good amount," Jack responded: “Hopefully over 1,000.

"I see big things for him and I'm sure he does himself. I'm sure that's not putting any pressure on him; I'm sure he wants the same thing, probably even more."

Those expectations are no problem, says Fournette's former high school coach. He said he's never seen a player handle that kind of pressure the way Fournette does.

"That's unique," Johnson said. "It's not even close, because most kids will fold or do some things to kind of act out, but this kid, even since he was 6-, 7-years-old, he was able to handle it and able to deliver."