Leonard Fournette: ‘For the first time in my life, I really have a quarterback'

The Bucs' new running back is glad he won’t be the only focus of opposing defenses as he was in Jacksonville.
Leonard Fournettte, who rushed for 1,000 yards or more in two of his three seasons in Jacksonville, knows he will initially split time with Ronald Jones and LeSean McCoy.
Leonard Fournettte, who rushed for 1,000 yards or more in two of his three seasons in Jacksonville, knows he will initially split time with Ronald Jones and LeSean McCoy. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 8, 2020|Updated Sept. 8, 2020

TAMPA — Blake Bortles' ears are burning. Gardner Minshew and Nick Foles may want to cover theirs. Chad Henne and Cody Kessler won’t want to hear this, either. There may even be a few LSU signal-callers who wish he hadn’t said it.

But when former Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette was asked Tuesday what he liked most about joining the Bucs, he took a shot at all the guys who have been handing him the football.

“I mean, for the first time in my life I really have a quarterback, so that’s an eye-opener for me and not a lot of pressure is going to come on me,” Fournette said of playing with Tom Brady in Tampa. "I guess it will be a lot on me and him and a lot of guys on offense.

“As far as game-planning and changing things, it’s great for me. I’m happy to be back there with one of the greatest, or the greatest that played this game, and I get to learn from him, too.”

The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Fournette always shouldered more than his share of the offense with the Jaguars.

That won’t be the case in Tampa Bay, not only because of Brady, but because of all the receiving targets the Bucs have on offense.

“I think it’s great, especially to have a lot of guys like Mike (Evans), Chris (Godwin), (Rob) Gronk(owski), Tom and the O-line, and also you can spread the ball to guys like that and it’s not just you,” Fournette said. “So when they game-plan, they game-plan against eight guys and not just one. I think that opens up a variety of things to a lot of guys on our team on the offensive side of the ball.”

Fournette managed to rush for at least 1,000 yards in two of his three seasons in Jacksonville, even though he was the primary focus of opposing defenses designed to stop him. At times, he accumulated yards on the ground through sheer force of will.

Last season, Fournette also produced as a receiver, catching a career-high 76 passes for 522 yards.

The Bucs like to spread the field with five eligible receivers, preventing defenses from loading up against the run. Fournette may be used in short-yardage situations or on third down as a receiver and for pass protection Sunday against the Saints.

''Oh, yeah, he’ll have a role. He’ll have a solid role in this plan,'' coach Bruce Arians said. ''He’s a bright guy. Picked it up pretty quick today so, yeah. Obviously, he can’t do everything, but he’ll have a solid role for the week.''

Fournette practiced with the Bucs for the first time Tuesday, wearing No. 28. His familiar No. 27 belongs to starting running back Ronald Jones.

In Tampa Bay, Fournette will have to share the rushing load with Jones, LeSean McCoy and rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

Fournette drew interest from the Patriots and Chiefs, but the arrival of Brady, Gronkowski and McCoy likely swayed the decision in the Bucs' interest.

''I just think me coming to Tampa made perfect sense," Fournette said. “I felt they had all the keys that I needed and vice versa. I can help the team out, and obviously they can help me.”

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The Bucs certainly needed to bolster their running game. Tampa Bay hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Doug Martin rushed for 1,402 yards in 2015.

In the Bucs' first season under Arians, Peyton Barber was the starting tailback to begin the 2019 season and eventually gave way to Jones and third down back Dare Ogunbowale.

The Bucs had no interest in retaining Barber ,and Ogunbowale didn’t survive the final roster cutdown.

The Bucs finished 24th in the NFL in rushing offense, so it’s not a surprise Arians went looking for a few more ballcarriers to upgrade the ground game.

“We needed one last year, but we kept falling behind by 14 points in the first four minutes, so your run game is out the window,” Arians said, a reference to Jameis Winston’s 30 interceptions. “Especially in the two games against the Saints. That’s how we start every week. Where are we going to run the football? How are we going to run the football? Yeah, so upgrading it from last year was really a matter of eliminating turnovers early in the first quarter.”

Only three years ago, the Jaguars reached the AFC championship game. But that team was disassembled quickly.

Fournette said he isn’t sure why things didn’t work out in Jacksonville.

''Man, I don’t know," he said. “Times change everything. I’m moving past that. My time there was great. I made a bond with a lot of coaches and players that are my brothers for life. Things happen. I guess it wasn’t God’s plan. God had other things for me to see and do, and I’m moving on from it.”