Bucs running back Leonard Fournette on firm footing in Tampa Bay

·5 min read

TAMPA — Running back by committee has become the approach most frequently implemented in the NFL. But last season, Leonard Fournette got the Bucs out of their time share.

Fournette played 63 percent of the offensive snaps in 2021, a big number considering how much the Bucs have preferred to split the workload.

Not only did Fournette lead Tampa Bay in rushing with 812 yards and eight touchdowns, he also caught 69 passes for 452 yards and two scores.

That’s nothing compared with the burden Fournette carried when he was with the Jaguars. He came off the field for only 11 percent of the offensive plays in 2019.

It has taken a toll. Fournette missed the last three regular-season games last season and the playoff win against Philadelphia with a hamstring injury.

That’s why the addition of Rachaad White, a third-round draft pick from Arizona State, may keep Fournette a little fresher this season.

“Definitely, times have changed,” Fournette said. “It’s not a one-back show anymore. You need two or three guys to help take the load off your guys, not just at the running back, but at the receiver position, too. We put a lot of mileage on our body, and it’s always good to have someone come in and the offense won’t skip a beat.”

The growth of Fournette has been impressive since he was released by the Jaguars at the start of the 2020 season.

He is 27. After playing on a pair of one-year deals with the Bucs, he is financially secure after signing a three-year, $21 million contract in the offseason.

“It means a lot just knowing that Tampa trusted me,” Fournette said. “I had to work my tail off to get where I want to be. But through the grace of God, I’ve been blessed again and I have a home.”

Now he is focused on the season opener against the Cowboys on Sunday.

“We put in the hard work during camp,” Fournette said. “I’m very excited that it’s over with. Those long days add up on the body, you know? But we got the work in. We got it done. I feel like, as an entire team, we got better each and every day.

“Ready for the upcoming game against Dallas. I’m excited to play against them again. I know the whole world is going to be watching, so I’m ready for it.”

Much was made about Fournette reporting to the mandatory minicamp in June overweight. He stayed away from organized team activities to spend time with his family.

He will always play around 240 pounds, and he may need that armor to withstand the punishment absorbed by running backs in the league.

“I play around 238, 240, which is what I always do,” Fournette said. “But I guess the media was slow and needed something to talk about. I have no problem with that. But my job is when the season comes, be ready, be in shape, and I know what my team expects from me.”

Fournette rushed seven times for 44 yards in the preseason, including runs of 13 and 10 yards. He also caught three passes for 8 yards. That was all he needed to prepare for the regular season.

“Just getting back into football shape with the pads on,” he said. “Also getting hit. You have to understand, that soreness gets back in your body when you have to take a hit from an opponent, and also it’s just getting back into game speed. When you take off, your body is not used to some things that you did before.”

What can’t be underestimated is how much trust quarterback Tom Brady has developed in Fournette. He lobbied for the Bucs to sign him after he was released by the Jaguars. Brady knows Fournette will help protect him in blitz situations, something that prevented Ronald Jones from playing more last year.

“I came from a team where we ran the ball a lot,” Fournette said. “(Brady) has definitely helped me when it comes to receiving and catching the ball and things like that, understanding defenses with his knowledge and what he bring to the table. I listen to a guy like that.

“Also, I try to understand and see what he wants as a player and what helps him bring his game to the next level. We have a great relationship on and off the football field, and I think that’s what makes us great when we get together on the field and play.”

When there are breakdowns or mistakes, Brady and Fournette have high-enough football IQs to make things work on the fly.

“At some point, the X’s and O’s, what the coaches teach, man, sometimes doesn’t really work,” Fournette said. “You have to be a football player. You have to have those football instincts to make the plays you want to make to help put the team in the best position to win games. I think my understanding of situational football is 100 times better than what it was when I first got to the league.”

The players’ interactions with fans also have changed, and Fournette is ready to embrace his popularity by forming a group to connect with fans that he is calling the LF7 Club.

“I want to remove the barriers between the fans and players, just to show them what it’s like being a pro athlete,” said Fournette, who has posted details on how to join on his Instagram and Twitter pages.

“I will be giving away tickets and chances for them to hang out with me in real life,” he said. “First come, first serve. That’s how it goes.”

Kind of like the Bucs’ running back position.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD..

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