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‘He’ll fit right in’: Arians confident in Leonard Fournette’s chemistry with Bucs

For now, the starting tailback job belongs to Ronald Jones, coach said.
Running back Leonard Fournette rushes for yardage against the New York Jets during the first half of a game in Jacksonville last year.
Running back Leonard Fournette rushes for yardage against the New York Jets during the first half of a game in Jacksonville last year. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | Associated Press ]
Published Sep. 3, 2020

TAMPA ― So much focus has been on Tom Brady filling the sky with footballs, it was time to evaluate what may happen when the Bucs let their running backs carry the offense.

So when Leonard Fournette was released by the Jaguars, coach Bruce Arians looked at his ball carriers and thought there was room for a powerful runner who could also block and catch.

Fournette, 25, agreed to a one-year deal with the Bucs Wednesday that includes a base salary of $2 million and could be worth as much as $3.5 million with incentives.

“That’s one position I don’t think you can have enough good guys,” Arians said. “That’s the one area where nicks and bruises really add up. And when you can get a player of that caliber, and I got great reviews from people that know him and have coached him, he’ll fit right in and we’ll see what role happens and how fast it can happen.”

For now, Arians says, the starting tailback job still belongs to Ronald Jones, the third-year pro from Southern Cal who led the Bucs in rushing last season with 724 yards and six touchdowns.

“It’s his job,” Arians said. “Nothing has changed for him. We just added a heck of a piece of insurance and see what kind of role he can cut out.”

Veteran LeSean McCoy signed with the Bucs Aug. 4 and has been Jones’ backup in training camp. Dare Ogunbowale is a former captain of the special teams who excelled on third down last season. The Bucs also drafted Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round and Louisiana’s Raymond Calais in the seventh.

The Bucs are likely to keep only four or five running backs when rosters must be trimmed to 53 by 5 p.m. on Saturday.

“It’s going to affect somebody, that’s for sure,” Arians said. “(Fournette’s) skill set is very rounded. He’s a three-down player, so he fits right into the rest of the group and we just added some outstanding depth at a position that’s okay.

"But Rojo’s our guy and Shady is ready for his role. It’s just going to be building roles as we go along but having enough quality players to finish this thing."

Fournette still has to go through COVID-19 protocol and may not be able to sign his contract and join the team until this weekend.

The Bucs finished what amounts to their last training camp practice Thursday and will begin installing the game plan for the Sept. 13 opener at New Orleans.

“He’s a very bright player from everything I’ve heard from the guys who have coached him, he’ll pick it up really quick,” Arians said of Fournette. “You know, we’re not going to force it because we don’t have to force it.”

At 25, Fournette is a two-time, 1,000-yard rusher who entered the league as the fourth overall pick by Jacksonville in 2017.

Prior to that, at LSU, Fournette was involved in a scuffle before facing Florida in 2016 in a game that was rescheduled and moved because of Hurricane Matthew. Fournette shoved Gators assistant Torrian Gray during warmups. Fournette wasn’t even expected to play because of an ankle injury but rushed 12 times for 40 yards in a 16-10 defeat that gave the Gators the SEC East title.

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During his time in the pros, durability has been an issue. Fournette missed 12 games in three seasons with injuries, eight of them coming in 2018.

There also have been some character concerns in Jacksonville. He was suspended one game in 2018 following an altercation with Buffalo defensive lineman Shaq Lawson.

He became the target of derision for Jaguars vice president Tom Coughlin, who ruled the suspension violated remaining guarantees in Fournette’s rookie contract.

In the season finale, Coughlin tore into Fournette and running back T.J. Yeldon for looking disinterested on the bench.

“They were disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player,” Coughlin said at the time.

A report by NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo Wednesday said that Fournette was often late, fell asleep during team meetings and did not put in the necessary work.

“He’s had some issues with coaches there in Jacksonville,” ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported. “So I’m told, from people who have worked with him, if you go into a new locker room, there could be some problems, potentially.”

Arians said he had no concerns about Fournette meshing with the Bucs.

“The people that I really, really trust gave him high, high marks in everything that I care about," Arians said. “I can’t say what’s going on in Jacksonville. All I can say is what’s happening in Tampa. He’ll fit right in."

Perhaps, no player is happier to see Fournette in a Bucs uniform than his fellow LSU teammate, linebacker Devin White, who was recruited as a running back and linebacker to the Tigers.

"Going against him in practice, he just brings a whole different demeanor," White said. “We jaw at each other a lot about who’s the best and who’s going to get the best of that person on that day. He would’ve made me even better than the guys who made me better, just because we’ve got that friendship.

“But as far as getting him as a teammate and player, he’s going to help us tremendously. Whatever B.A. and the coaching staff on the offense asks him to do, I know he’s going to do it and I know he’s going to do it full speed. He’s different. He can play in any system. He can catch the ball, he can run the ball, he can get in between the tackles. He can play in space. So we’re just getting a heck of a football player.”