Rabalais: Now Fournette gets to prove he can handle the hype

Would you believe that Leonard Fournette parted the Mississippi on Monday and walked across its dry river bottom on the way to his first LSU football practice? Or that he leaped over linebackers at said practice in a single bound? Or even that he killed him a bear when he was only 3?

Les Miles joked that the star running back was in third grade when LSU started recruiting His Leonardness. At least we think he was joking. When you’re wondering what becomes a legend most, it’s hard to tell.

In his poem “To an Athlete Dying Young,” A.E. Housman lamented the early demise of an acclaimed sportsman who at least wouldn’t live to join the ranks of those whose “name died before the man.”

Right now, at dawn of his college football career, it seems impossible to imagine Fournette’s fame tank ever running dry.

Monday afternoon saw dawn truly break across the horizon of Buga Nation for the first time at LSU. His inaugural practice was not accompanied by the blaring of trumpets or the release of a squadron of doves, but was observed by a bristling array of cameras and curious eyes.

Even a teammate and rival like senior tailback Terrence Magee, who practiced in the morning with the other veterans, was at least considering going from participant to spectator just to give Fournette a peek. To see if Magee’s own assertion at Southeastern Conference media days that Fournette will one day go down as one of LSU’s all-time greats could begin to be forged in the heat of his first practice.

“I believe in giving praise when praise is due,” Magee said. “You gravitate toward a person like that.

“No doubt. He’s a beast back there. I’m eager to see what he does the rest of camp.”

It’s hard not to add to the hype. And it isn’t hard, as the Bob Woodward character asserted in “All the President’s Men,” to hype the Fournette story with the facts. After all, this was a player to whom the recruiting website 24/7sports.com gave a rating of 101, which loosely translated means a once in a decade talent.

So how did Fournette look in his first real day on the job?

Physically, not like a freshman, that’s for sure. He’s listed at 6-foot-1, 224 pounds, and his face has the definition of a 30-year-old man. He has the biggest thighs of any LSU running back in camp. If you told me that Fournette was leaving tomorrow for West Virginia to vie for a starting job with the Saints instead of the Tigers, I wouldn’t have swallowed that one faster than I did the “we’ve been recruiting him since third grade” line.

“I do remember the first time I saw him, I thought he was old enough and big enough to play” in college, Miles said. “He went from 5-10 to 6-1, from 193 to about 225.”

Even the amount of time Fournette was on display to the media Monday seemed designed to tantalize, to heighten the mystery and add to the mythic stature.

Monday afternoon’s practice was open for only about 10 minutes. During that time, Fournette took a few handoffs in a running backs drill, then joined other LSU backs and receivers running through “the gauntlet,” an exercise in which players run across the field and have to adjust to passes being thrown at them from about five different angles.

Fournette wasn’t perfect. He dropped one pass in each of the two drills we saw. After the first, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron shouted after him, “Leonard … outside arm” to redirect the way he carries the ball.

But these flaws seem like trying to pick over the Mona Lisa with a microscope. Miles himself had to search a bit to think of ways Fournette could improve.

“It’s very difficult for me to tell you what he needs,” Miles said. “I can tell you what he has is acceleration, vision, good ball skills. I assume when he gets pads on he will be a very physical back.”

It’s also a very large mountain of expectations Fournette has to climb. At this point, and those of us in the media are equally culpable, it seems nothing he could do this season could live up to the build up.

But all of us watch sports in the hopes of seeing something or someone great. An electric flash of brilliance from a play, or a player.

Can Fournette deliver? Nothing Monday said he could, or couldn’t. But at least it’s one less day until we see what he’s really got on the college level.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.