Tom Coughlin and Jaguars not giving up on Leonard Fournette

Leonard Fournette is working to bounce back after a second-season slump. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Tom Coughlin still believes in Leonard Fournette.

Even though Coughlin ripped Fournette for his sideline demeanor in the season finale, saw his less-than-full commitment to the Jaguars and football and tried to take away the guaranteed money in his contract, the Jaguars’ executive vice president of football operations isn’t giving up on the player he drafted fourth overall in 2017.

“With Leonard, a prepared Leonard coming into camp with a mindset that he discussed and we talked about ... I have full confidence in him,” Coughlin said. “He does have some things he’s got to prove when he comes back about his preparation, but he’s a young, young player, he loves football, had an outstanding year, had a very disappointing year, and I think he wants to -- we want him to be a great player and I think he’s in the same mindset.”

It appears that way, at least. Instead of working out in his hometown of New Orleans or at his alma mater of LSU, Fournette instead headed to the University of Wyoming. Ben Iannacchione was hired as the Cowboys’ director of sports performance after spending six of the past seven seasons working in the strength and conditioning program at LSU, and Fournette asked him to help him get ready for a pivotal 2019 season.

Fournette has posted several photos on social media and he appears noticeably slimmer than he was when the 2018 season ended, but that means little at this point because Fournette showed up to training camp last July at 223 pounds -- the weight he played at as a sophomore at LSU and 27 pounds lighter than he was when he reported as a rookie. When the season ended six months later, there were legitimate questions about Fournette’s maturity, commitment to football, conditioning, on-field behavior and production.

Fournette missed six full games and half of two others with a right hamstring injury in the first eight weeks of the season, and there was mounting frustration inside the organization about the length of his absence. The Jaguars built the offense around a power-run game and had a hard time functioning consistently without him on the field.

All that time away apparently had an impact on his conditioning. Fournette ended the season heavier than when he reported for training camp. It’s unusual for an NFL player to gain weight during the season, and Fournette was unable to do much, if any, conditioning during the time he was rehabbing his hamstring. However, Fournette was not limited by injuries in November and the first half of December, and his conditioning did not improve. He did admit in December that he could be in better shape.

Fournette also was suspended without pay for one game for leaving the bench and fighting with Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Shaq Lawson during the Jaguars’ 24-21 loss at Buffalo on Nov. 25. Fournette said he ran across the field because he saw Lawson shove Carlos Hyde and wanted to defend his teammate. Shortly after that, the Jaguars told Fournette they were voiding the guaranteed money remaining in his contract as punishment, a move that Fournette has appealed with the NFL.

Fournette also was caught on video yelling at a fan in the stands during the team’s embarrassing 30-9 loss to Tennessee on Dec. 6. The video clip released on TMZ.com shows Fournette yelling that he is going to “beat your ass” at an unknown fan before two people walk up and escort Fournette away. Fournette said several days later that the fan used a racial slur, a claim that teammate T.J. Yeldon corroborated.

The season ended on a sour note when Coughlin publicly criticized Fournette (who was inactive because of a foot injury) and Yeldon for sitting alone on the bench and acting disinterested during the season finale. Coughlin said they were “disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player.”

Fournette’s final numbers in his second season: eight full games played, two half-games played, 439 yards and five touchdowns rushing (3.3 yards per carry), a suspension and a public scolding.

Yet Coughlin and the Jaguars aren’t giving up on him. They signed former Seattle and Cincinnati running back Thomas Rawls in January, released Hyde and have not signed a back in free agency. The only other running back on the roster is David Williams, who played in just four games as a rookie last season.

The position isn’t at the top of the team’s priority list for the draft, either, as there are major needs at right tackle and tight end that must be filled, but the Jaguars are likely to select a running back later in the draft.

“Obviously you’ve got to have people who can back up and perform in similar capacities if in fact something does happen, but that is true of every position,” Coughlin said. “You have to have people that can play the game if those that are penciled in as first-line players aren’t able to go.”

Even if the Jaguars do add a back later in free agency or the draft, it’s clear the team still wants to build the offense around Fournette.