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‘Humbled’ Leonard Fournette eager to prove himself all over again in 2021

The resurgent tailback chose to re-sign with the Bucs, though no starting job is promised.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette, center, said Wednesday that he could have signed elsewhere for more money this offseason, but chose to re-join Tampa Bay in its quest for a second straight Super Bowl title.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette, center, said Wednesday that he could have signed elsewhere for more money this offseason, but chose to re-join Tampa Bay in its quest for a second straight Super Bowl title. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 31
Updated Apr. 1

The resurgent running back, a man of myriad nicknames, said Wednesday he currently is partial to “Lombardi Lenny.”

But even now, as he prepares for his second season as a Buc with a regimen that includes catching 100 passes a day, Leonard Fournette is pursuing another prominent title.

Starter.

“It’s like college,” said Fournette, whose re-signing to a one-year deal that could reach $4 million with incentives was formally announced Wednesday.

“It’s a typical training camp, and it’s going to be a great battle. That’s all there is to it; it’s part of football. Whatever’s going to be thrown our way, we have to face it and come out victorious.”

Fournette’s last season, which included a benching followed by a breakthrough, resuscitated the 26-year-old tailback’s pro career and enhanced his market value. After totaling 448 yards and four touchdowns in the postseason as the Bucs won the Super Bowl and the Lombardi Trophy, Fournette said he could have received more money elsewhere during his foray into free agency.

But he chose to rejoin the franchise that he said left him humbled in 2020. “And I think it developed me as a better man, too,” he said.

As if to keep him humbled, coach Bruce Arians indicated Tuesday that the starting tailback job remains a derby featuring Fournette, fourth-year speedster Ronald Jones and second-year project Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

Moreover, Arians didn’t dismiss the possibility of drafting a running back with the 32nd overall pick.

“They all know what the system is, and the best players are going to play,” Arians said. “Obviously we have two really, really good ones at that position, and I really like Ke’Shawn Vaughn. I think with an offseason, he’s going to have a breakout year also.”

Related: Bucs coach Bruce Arians promises 'very, very physical' preseason camp

Six months ago, such rhetoric likely would have left Fournette bristling. Waived in August by the Jaguars, who took him with the fourth overall selection in the 2017 draft, the consensus All-American at LSU signed a one-year deal with the Bucs and ultimately grew disillusioned with his backup role.

But a heart-to-heart talk with Arians and encouragement from veteran teammates such as Antonio Brown helped him recalibrate mentally. When Jones was sidelined by injuries and a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Fournette seized the starting opportunity and flourished, ultimately earning the nickname “Playoff Lenny,” which he attributes to the website Barstool Sports.

He became the third player in NFL history to score touchdowns in four games in a postseason. Maddeningly inconsistent as a receiver in the regular season, his yards per target soared in the playoffs, from 4.96 to 7.05.

“When I got cut (by Jacksonville), it kind of messed me up mentally,” said Fournette, who finished the 2020 regular season with 600 total yards (including 367 rushing) and six rushing touchdowns.

“I’ve never been cut from anything in my life, so I was still getting used to that and still overcoming that. And then by me not starting, it was something else I had to overcome, not playing. So it was just back-to-back things I was going through, and … a number of these guys on this team helped me get through it.”

After brief flirtations in free agency, Fournette said he chose to rejoin that support system.

Even if it leaves him humbled all over again.

“Going to camp, we’re going to have to compete,” he said.

“Nothing’s promised to anyone. I’ve been here before. I understand about competing. It’s like college, you know what I mean? And right now, we’re just training, getting our bodies right, just coming in knowing we’re going to have to start all over and compete for that starting job, and it’s going to be a great one.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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