Elevated expectations and endless bravado are essential parts of preseason football interviews, especially when a talented team is doing the talking.
So it triggered only mild surprise Wednesday when LSU coach Les Miles stopped just short of guaranteeing his Tigers will win every game on their 2014 schedule.
“I like us,” Miles said at the SEC media days. “And I like us in every game.”
The real shocker came from running back Terrence Magee, LSU’s top returning rusher from last season (626 yards, 8 TDs). Asked to offer his early impressions of Leonard Fournette, the nation’s top-rated running back signee, Magee basically lobbied to bench himself in favor of the freshman from New Orleans who has joined the team for informal summer drills.
“I know you guys have seen Adrian Peterson play,” Magee said, invoking the name of the NFL’s top running back. “To be honest, I think that’s the only guy that’s playing the running back position right now that you can compare him to.”
Lest anyone forget, the Minnesota Vikings’ standout was an instant hit as a college freshman in 2004. Peterson rushed for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns, leading Oklahoma to a berth in the national championship game. He placed second in balloting for the Heisman Trophy, still the best finish by a player straight out of high school in the race for college football’s top individual honor.
Against that backdrop, reporters offered Magee an opportunity to throttle back praise of his soon-to-be teammate. Instead, the senior made it clear he considers Fournette (6-foot-1, 224 pounds) a once-in-a-generation talent capable of being the final piece of the puzzle that places LSU in this year’s national title mix.
With the Tigers returning 13 starters from a 10-3 team, an offensive jolt from a nuclear weapon who racked up 5,306 all-purpose yards in high school and averaged 8.2 yards per carry last season could make the difference.
“I still get a ‘wow’ effect watching him catch the ball and run away from guys,” said Magee, reflecting on Fournette’s recent efforts in 7-on-7 drills. “It’s amazing how quick he catches on to things and the vision he plays with. Who wouldn’t want to play in the same backfield as that guy?”
A short list would include jealous teammates and guys worried about diminished playing time. But Magee insists he does not fit into either group. Nor does Kenny Hilliard, the other returning veteran in a four-deep backfield rotation that figures to feature Fournette more than anyone else. If not by the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin, then soon thereafter.
Instead of sulking, Magee and Hilliard plan to mentor Fournette in efforts to expedite his development.
“Me and Kenny, part of it is going to be up on us and how we help mature him and mold him,” Magee said. “To help him understand that success, it comes first, but you’ve got to handle it in the right way.”
Without question, the YouTube clips of Fournette are impressive. And it’s rare to hear veteran teammates gush as much about an incoming freshman as LSU players did Wednesday. Whether that makes Fournette another Peterson or the next Herschel Walker, a true freshman who carried Georgia to the 1980 national title, is yet to be determined.
What already has been decided is that LSU players and coaches are smitten with their new addition.
“Just from his attitude, I’m loving him already,” said offensive lineman La’el Collins. “He acts like he’s been here for three years. He works hard. He’s humble. He’s coachable. He’s a guy who wants to be successful. When you have all those want-tos and you have all that God-given talent, it’s not going to be hard for you.”
Yes, the Tigers still have a quarterback quandary. But the defense is stout, the offensive line is experienced and the running back rotation is deep. If Fournette proves to be the game-breaker he is projected to be in his first college season, Miles might be the coach getting the last laugh in January.
That’s how he acted Wednesday while shooting down preseason projections that LSU will finish third or lower in the SEC West Division.
“Our position is, ‘Don’t bother us. We don’t care,’ ” Miles said. “I’d be willing to bet that not many people picked Auburn a year ago. We’re a team that’s really on the cusp of an opportunity to win championships.”
A key component will be Fournette, whom Miles identified as one of four freshmen “we expect to have a great impact on our season.” The others are quarterback Brandon Harris, receiver Malachi Dupre and linebacker C.J. Garrett.
But only Fournette draw a comparison to a young Michael Jordan.
“He expects himself to be something very special,” Miles said of Fournette. “I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting himself to be better than anyone. Leonard Fournette is doing that. He’s doing exactly what he should be doing.”
If Fournette shines as brightly as Miles envisions, the coach will have a lot to like about this LSU team on a weekly basis this season.