TAMPA, Fla. (AP)Leonard Fournette is making the most of an opportunity to jumpstart his NFL career with what he affectionately calls ”Last Chance U.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers not only have been a good fit for the 26-year-old running back in his second season with the Super Bowl champions, Fournette is flourishing in a role he initially had difficulty accepting.
Winning consistently for the first time has helped. So has spending extra time on the practice field with Tom Brady.
There’s nothing, though, that bolsters the confidence of a running back more than simply putting the ball in his hands enough to make a difference on game day.
Fournette has gone from primarily being used as a backup to Ronald Jones a year ago to handling a much heavier workload this season, when he has rushed for 439 yards on 101 attempts and caught 30 passes for 239 yards and scored four touchdowns during Tampa Bay’s 7-2 start.
He’s not the focal point of an offense featuring Brady, as well as receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown and tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. But the role is a lot closer to what he was accustomed to in Jacksonville for three seasons.
”He’s fit in, he’s found his niche,” coach Bruce Arians said.
”I think that’s just normal growth and understanding your situation,” Arians added of Fournette’s transition to the Bucs. ”We’ve got way past that, so it’s just showing up and practicing hard every day and getting better.”
Fournette, who replaced an injured Jones to play a key role in Tampa Bay’s playoff run last winter, said he couldn’t be pleased about the way things have turned out since the Jaguars released him a week before last year’s season opener.
”I’m very happy,” Fournette said, adding it’s probably the most fun he has had in the NFL since entering the league as the fourth overall pick of the 2017 draft, rushing for over 1,000 yards and helping the Jaguars reach the AFC championship game as a rookie.
”My coaches trust in me. … The players, too,” the running back said. ”Last year kind of helped me, too. I still feel fresh. Not getting the ball a lot of times, and not getting too many bruises on my body, I feel good. I’m in good shape right now.”
Entering this week’s bye, the Bucs lead the NFL in passing. The re-emergence of Fournette and the running game has provided some much-needed balance on offense.
”He comes to work. He’s a great player,” Evans said. ”We have a lot of great players on this team that when they have the ball and have their opportunities, they make the most of it. That’s what he’s been doing, and hopefully he can keep doing it.”
Fournette is appreciative of the opportunity.
A two-time 1,000-yard rusher in three seasons in Jacksonville, he gradually fell out of favor with the Jaguars despite posting the best numbers of his career with 1,152 yards rushing and 76 receptions for 522 yards in 2019.
The Bucs are committed to getting him more involved in the passing game this season. Fournette has benefited from spending extra time on the practice field with Brady and other offensive players, working on pass routes and other facets of game plans.
”I always could catch. I just went to schools that ran the ball a lot,” Fournette said.
”Me and Tom wanted to get together with a lot of the guys so we could get the run game on board. The first couple weeks we were all right, but we weren’t where we wanted to be,” Fournette added. ”So, we spend an hour after work every Friday going over the runs for the whole week, seeing what we liked or what we were good at, and which runs we dislike. We try to work up from there and get better.”
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich noted a team culture nurtured in the Tampa Bay locker room allows players such as Fournette and Brown, another Brady playmaker taking advantage of a second chance with the Bucs, to come in and be successful.
”These guys love football. As long as you put guys together that love football, the football will speak for itself,” Leftwich said.
”Our job really as coaches is to just figure out what they do well,” Leftwich added, ”keep asking them to do what they do well, and what they don’t do so well let’s try to improve on it. Let’s try to get better at it.”
Like Fournette, Brown joined the Bucs last season and contributed to the team’s Super Bowl run.
”Me and A.B. had a talk, and I’m like: `Man, this is really Last Chance U.’ And we’ve got Richard Sherman here now. This is like his second chance,” Fournette said.
”This organization is different. They take care of their people here. They understand their people. They understand their players, too. When you get that kind of love back, you’ll work your tail off for anybody that’s doing that for you.”
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