Fournette must improve receiving game to be one of best RBs ever
With the Heisman race boiling down to an exciting battle between Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry last year, it’s easy to forget that the frontrunner for the first half of the season was LSU’s Leonard Fournette.
Before Fournette came undone against a tremendous Alabama defense he was unstoppable, rushing for at least 150 yards in every game and forcing 56 missed tackles. At that point he was our highest-graded running back with a grade of +32.4 — a stretch in front of Ezekiel Elliott at +26.7 in second place. He was ahead of the compeition in terms of rushing grade as well, coming in at +31.2 with Devontae Booker in second place at +22.5. Simply put, Fournette was dominating in a way that few running backs have in the past.
Then, Fournette went up against one of the most ferocious and talented defenses in the history of college football. Alabama’s front seven was loaded in a way that the LSU offensive line simply couldn’t handle.
The Crimson Tide had five defensive linemen who played at least 300 snaps, the lowest-graded of those five was DJ Pettway at +15.8. They had four linebackers who met that snap threshold, and the lowest-graded of those was Denzel Devall at +14.6. Up front, they had far too much talent for an LSU offensive line that saw three starters finish 2015 with a positive grade and just one (freshman guard William Clapp) rank inside the top 40 at his position in terms of PFF grade. That lead to a lot of plays like this, where Fournette was met with a sea of crimson in the backfield.
He would finish the game with 31 rushing yards; 30 of those coming after contact. His longest run of the game went for 18 yards, with his other 18 carries combined for just 13 yards. It really was the day his Heisman Trophy fate changed, and considering the talent he faced on the field, there wasn’t much more he could have done.
However, one game should not define a season, and if one takes a look at the bigger picture Leonard Fournette still very much deserves to be in the Heisman Trophy conversation. Last season he had 1,094 yards after contact — a mark topped only by Alabama’s Derrick Henry — while his 85 missed tackles forced were the most of any running back in the nation. One only needs to watch his highlights to see how powerful of a runner he is.
What truly makes Fournette a special runner is that he’s not limited to his power. It’s a huge part of his running style, but he’s not just a guy who can run over or through defenders — he’s fast enough to run away from them, too. 834 (43.5 percent) of his rushing yards came on runs of 15 yards or more, giving him the 15th-best breakaway percentage in the nation in 2015. It’s helped by the fact that there is a subtle quickness to his footwork that you don’t often see from a 230-pound running back, and it’s what separates him from power backs of the past.
Fournette could be the best player in the nation this season, but he’s not quite there yet. The comparisons with Adrian Peterson are fair, and they are fair in both a positive and negative sense. Like Peterson he is a phenomenal pure running back, but there are questions about his ability to make an impact on all three downs. As we saw with Christian McCaffrey, PFF’s choice for the Heisman, versatility is vital. McCaffrey was able to dominate as a receiver out of the backfield in addition to being a very good runner, his added value as the best kick and punt returner in the nation was a huge factor too. Similar to eventual winner Henry, Fournette is not yet as well-rounded, as his +1.4 receiving grade ranked just 57th among running backs last year.
While he hasn’t dominated as a receiver yet, there were flashes that showed his potential, with 10 missed tackles forced from just 19 receptions, and his ability to make people miss in the open field evident when he gets the ball in a bit of space. With four dropped passes from 23 catchable targets though, he still needs to improve to allow this to become another area where he can make a big impact.
Leonard Fournette is the best pure runner in the nation, something which colleague Jeff Dooley covered here, and on that alone he’ll be a Heisman candidate once again this upcoming season. He could do with better help by his offensive line, allowing him more looks against linebackers and safeties in the open field, but he proved that he can put up monster numbers with an average line in front of him. We already know that he’ll be highly coveted by teams in the NFL come next spring, but in 2016 he can establish himself as one of the best running backs to ever grace the college game, if he can improve his all-around game and consistency as a receiver. Regardless, it’s understandable to expect to see more of the same from Fournette as a pure runner this season — something which should terrify opposing defensive players and coordinators alike.