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LSU's Leonard Fournette passing the real eye test

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Leonard Fournette is a sight to behold: boulders for shoulders, banyan branches for arms, cinder blocks for thighs and nimble feet. Braces on his teeth are the only sign that he is, in fact, only 20.

The predictions last summer that Fournette would be the first true freshman Heisman Trophy winner, while ultimately inaccurate, weren't completely insane.

Fournette still passes the eye test. He might earn a slightly higher grade, if even possible, after a full winter in LSU's offseason program.

But the LSU running back is starting to pass the eye test from within, too. He's seeing the game differently this spring, and it could propel him closer to the massive expectations placed on him when he arrived.

"My vision of the game has slowed totally down," Fournette said. "I'm starting to understand everything, not just what I do, but I'm learning everybody's part."

LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron singles out Fournette and wide receiver D.J. Chark as the unit's most improved players since the season.

"He knows more about blitz, he knows more about protection, he knows more about the passing game," Cameron said of Fournette. "He's understanding how to press the line of scrimmage in the running game and set up the offensive linemen’s block instead of just running to the first hole he sees."

LSU didn't end the 2014 season on a good note, but Fournette did, rushing for 289 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries in his final two games. After an unremarkable start (52 rushing yards or fewer in four of his first six games) and an unfortunate celebration choice for his first college touchdown, Fournette's finish put the attention back on what could come next.

Running backs coach Frank Wilson challenged Fournette to become a complete player. It meant no longer being subbed out on third down or near the goal line, or being baited by a head-on blocker when multiple defenders approached from the perimeter.

"It's more mental than anything," Wilson said, "to be able to recognize defenses and blitz indicators, have a field awareness. It's knowing a defense well enough to know they’re a field-blitz team, they’re a boundary-blitz team, to understand this team does this when we're backed up, this team doesn't do this when you're in the tight red zone. These are their tendencies.

"As opposed to just being a ball carrier."

Just being a ball carrier has served Fournette from the moment he started playing. It served him at New Orleans' Saint Augustine High School, where he rushed for 7,619 yards and 88 touchdowns, becoming the first player to win back-to-back Gatorade Player of the Year awards in Louisiana. It served him last fall, when he set LSU's freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards.

He can do a lot on talent alone, but elite backs are also masters of their craft.

"That slight bit of knowledge gives you an advantage," Wilson said, "because someone is as big as you are and as fast as you are. So for you to have a bead on what they’re going to do allows you to play a step faster.

"Sometimes that’s all you need."

Tigers offensive tackle Vadal Alexander believes Fournette gained a better sense of game speed late last fall, letting linemen seal their blocks before making his cuts. Alexander recalls a play in Saturday's scrimmage on which Fournette waited for his linemen, then cut back for a big gain.

"That's something I had a problem with," Fournette said. "I'm so used to hitting it -- quick, quick, quick, and get off the field. All great backs are patient, and that's what I have to learn."

Added Alexander: "This year's going to be an even bigger jump in his capability, being that premier back in the country."

Hyperbole follows Fournette like a linebacker in pursuit. Cameron said Fournette reminds him of running backs he coached in the NFL -- LaDainian Tomlinson, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. According to Cameron, Tomlinson knew the game so well he could have played quarterback.

Cameron expects Fournette to have the same knowledge by the time he leaves LSU, "which is rare."

"He’s super, super smart," Cameron said, "and a super, super hard worker."

But after Fournette had just 18 yards on eight carries in his debut against Wisconsin, a different word swirled around him.

"I forgot what they called me," he said, "but I was upset about it."

A bust?

"Yeah, a bust," he said. "It made me mad. It was something I wasn't used to being called, a bust. I talked to my father and Coach Frank about it. I had to get over it."

Fournette had to mature. The process accelerated when his daughter, Lyric Jae, was born Jan. 4.

"You want to do better," he said. "You want to be great in everything you do."

Fournette enjoys learning about the greats at his position. He was surprised to find out how many passes Tomlinson caught in the NFL. He notes that Emmitt Smith understood each player's job as well as his own.

But Fournette doesn't model himself after anyone, nor does he compare himself to Georgia's Nick Chubb or any other college back. He doesn't want their legacy.

"Trying to have my own, man," he said.

Five months from Fournette's second season, it's coming more into focus.