JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The wildly inconsistent Jacksonville Jaguars have one constant: Leonard Fournette is getting the ball to start games.
The rookie has carried on the offense’s opening play each week this season, running between the tackles, lowering his shoulder pads and setting the tone for a team determined to play smash-mouth football.
“Sometimes it lets somebody know that it’s going to be a long day ahead of them,” Fournette said. “It sends a message not just to the defense, but to your O-line and offense, too. I think the physical part of the game starts with the running backs and the O-line.”
For the Jaguars (3-2), everything starts with Fournette.
The former LSU star leads the league in carries (109), ranks second in rushing yards (466) and has six touchdowns.
His physicality is evident, but he’s also shown enough speed to run away from NFL defenders and better-than-expected hands. Veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis called Fournette a mix of former Jaguars running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, flashing Taylor’s speed and Jones-Drew’s power.
“Super physical, can run away from you, will run you over,” Lewis said. “He might even wave at you, like, ‘Come on, you’re about to get this action.’”
Fournette did just that last Sunday at Pittsburgh, when he gestured toward safety Mike Mitchell before slamming into him to end a 12-yard gain in the fourth quarter of the 30-9 rout.
Fournette added a 90-yard dash in the closing minutes that gave him a career-high 181 yards and two scores.
“He sets the whole tone for the whole team, and that’s what we need,” guard. A.J. Cann said. “I don’t get to watch him much because I’m blocking. But when he does pass the line of scrimmage and I end up behind him, seeing little moves or seeing him run somebody over, it’s impressive and it’s a joy to watch.”
The Jaguars lead the NFL in rushing, averaging 165.2 yards a game.
That old-school, throwback style was exactly what coach Doug Marrone and top executive Tom Coughlin wanted when they started piecing the team together in January. They drafted Fournette with the fourth overall pick, added left tackle Cam Robinson in the second round and held one of the toughest training camps possible in this day and age.
“It’s infectious,” Lewis said. “It’s all about competing, and we’ve established an environment where we compete here and we challenge each other. … We’re one of the closest teams I’ve been around and we’re all going in the same direction.”
So far, the direction has been one step forward and one step back. Jacksonville hasn’t won consecutive games in a year and has only accomplished the feat twice in the last four seasons.
The Jaguars will try to end their up-and-down ways Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams (3-2).
And there’s a good chance Fournette will get the first carry — and set the tone.
“That carries onto everything else, and people get excited about that,” Marrone said, adding that backup Chris Ivory has been effective as well. “I think they’re doing a good job. They’re not running out of bounds. That’s something we like. Hopefully, sometimes they can make some better judgment in the secondary, make someone miss. How about that?
“But we’re extremely happy with him.”