As the spotlight hits, Leonard Fournette keeps working

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Running back Leonard Fournette (5) runs through the defense while picking up good yardage during the Under Armour Bowl. The Highlights defeated the Nitros 31-21.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Running back Leonard Fournette (5) runs through the defense while picking up good yardage during the Under Armour Bowl. The Highlights defeated the Nitros 31-21.

HOOVER, Ala. — While Les Miles paraded around the Hyatt Regency Birmingham on Wednesday answering questions about his highly touted star running back, Leonard Fournette practiced at LSU’s indoor facility back in Baton Rouge, pulling sleds and running laps.

Cyril Crutchfield knows. He was there watching.

“He’s a workhorse,” said Crutchfield, Fournette’s high school coach at St. Augustine.

The college football world’s spotlight shined on LSU’s acclaimed tailback this past week at Southeastern Conference media days. But all the while, Fournette, facing public expectations that may be impossible to meet, just kept preparing for his rookie season.

LSU’s appearance at media days Wednesday centered around the 6-foot-1, 224-pound specimen who was ranked the nation’s No. 1 recruit. And he wasn’t even there.

“I’m excited to answer questions about him,” senior running back Terrence Magee said. “I’m excited for everyone to see him play.”

Magee called Fournette “electrifying,” and Miles mentioned basketball great Michael Jordan twice when speaking about the freshman. National recruiting experts proclaim him the best running back to emerge from high school since Adrian Peterson, and he’s arguably the most celebrated tailback LSU has signed since Kevin Faulk in 1995.

His commitment announcement — he chose LSU over Alabama and Texas — sparked a social media storm, and his signed letter of intent on National Signing Day sent LSU coaches bursting into celebration.

At least one assistant coach on the LSU staff has said he has never been more excited about a player in his 20-plus-year coaching career. Fournette has set his own goals high: the Heisman Trophy and a national title.

“He’s got a lot of confidence in himself,” Crutchfield said. “He’s going to handle anything thrown at him. There’s nothing thrown at him that he can’t handle in a mature manner.”

The buildup is monumental. The hype is unparalleled. But what are realistic expectations for a true freshman running back in the SEC?

It’s not as tough as one might think. Six true freshman running backs in the SEC have run for more than 1,000 yards in the past 10 years. Justin Vincent in 2003 was the last rookie back at LSU to reach that threshold.

Vincent began that year No. 3 on the depth chart. The third running back on LSU’s 2014 depth chart? Fournette, a guy teammates said is ahead of his age.

“The kid looks like he’s already a third-year guy,” left tackle La’el Collins said. “He’s cut up. He already looks like a big-time back. I can’t wait until he gets those pads on.”

That comes in a few weeks. LSU begins practice Aug. 4.

Fournette might look like a junior or senior, but he’s still a first-year player learning his way.

“We’re not putting him in a position where he has to achieve greatly,” Miles said.

Everything isn’t necessarily rosy for Fournette since he arrived in Baton Rouge in early June for summer school. (He’s taking two classes.) His academics are fine and his progression in the weight room is great, Crutchfield said. The biggest adjustment is the intensity of the workouts, he said.

“The length,” Crutchfield said. “High intensity, fast-paced. Less recovery time. All of those things.”

Running backs coach Frank Wilson paired LSU’s two freshman running backs with one of the two veterans. Senior Kenny Hilliard has John Ehret’s Darrel Williams, and Magee has Fournette.

“We’ve been going through the playbook with him, trying to teach him the ropes of how things go,” Magee said.

Therein lies the key.

The size of Fournette’s role in the offense likely depends on his understanding of the playbook. Miles hinted to that Wednesday.

Can he make the correct read once the offensive lineman makes his block? Can he learn to hit a certain hole when needed? Can he bounce outside when necessary?

Most importantly, can he avoid fumbling?

“We anticipate he’ll be fast on the uptake,” Miles said of the playbook.

If he can do that … well, Michael Jordan and all.

“Tell you what — he’s not too good at bowling,” a laughing Magee said. “When it comes to football, he’s got it.”

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv. For more coverage of LSU football, read our Tiger Tracks blog at blogs.theadvocate.com/tigertracks