Leonard Fournette slipped off his sweaty cleats, signed each one and then handed them to a young fan after practice.
The youngster carefully walked away with Fournette’s gold-colored shoes, making sure not to touch the drying ink. After all, the memorabilia could appreciate in value if the Jacksonville Jaguars running back gets his NFL career turned around.
Fournette spoke publicly for the first time in nearly six months Friday, finally addressing the worst season in his 24 years and everything that’s happened since. He was injured, suspended and on the bench in crunch time. He was fined, criticized and admittedly not in ideal shape late in the year.
The Jaguars voided the remaining guarantees in his rookie contract following his one-game suspension for fighting, and personnel chief Tom Coughlin ripped him for being “disrespectful” and “selfish” during the season finale. Adding to the chaos, Fournette was arrested last month for driving with a suspended license.
“It’s a new year,” Fournette said following practice. “We have a new team. We’re focused and we have new players. It’s a new year for us, so it’s a new everything. It’s a clean start for a lot of us guys. We’re not focused on the past. The past’s the past.
“Some things I did, whether it was offseason and I admitted to, yeah I was wrong. We moved on. We’re in a good place right now.”
The Jaguars were in a tough spot without Fournette last season, unable to run the ball with any consistency after building the offense around the former LSU star and fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
He finished with 439 yards rushing and five touchdowns in eight games after running for 1,040 yards and nine scores as a rookie. He’s missed 11 games in two seasons, including two because of suspensions.
“Everybody has a bad year, so I don’t feel like I’ve got to prove myself to no one,” Fournette said.
The team probably feels otherwise.
Jacksonville completely revamped its running backs room around Fournette, firing position coach Tyrone Wheatley and parting ways with backups T.J. Yeldon, Carlos Hyde and Corey Grant.
Coach Doug Marrone hired 64-year-old Terry Robiskie, who, like Fournette, was born and raised in New Orleans and attended LSU, as running backs coach. They also added veteran Alfred Blue (another LSU alum) to be Fournette’s backup.
And even though they signed quarterback and former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles to upgrade one of the NFL’s most anemic offenses, Fournette is still expected to be the centerpiece under new coordinator John DeFilippo.
“He’s going to be a major reason for where our offense goes,” DeFilippo said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Leonard Fournette needs to be a big part of this offense. The harder he works, which he is right now, I think that’s not only going to be good for our offense, but good for our team.”
Fournette said he weighs 226 pounds, down 14 pounds from the end of last season.
He spent part of this offseason training in Dallas and then went to Wyoming to work with his college strength and conditioning coach in hopes of getting back to his “foundation.”
“I kind of put a lot on myself this offseason, like getting my body right,” Fournette said. “Just mentally coming back ready to play football. No distractions. Leaving the outside stuff where it’s at. I think that’s one of the biggest things that us players. … We face a lot of problems, you know what I mean?
“We have a lot of issues, and if we’re not right with ourselves and then we come out on this field, we’re not going to be right in the game.”
Getting Fournette back on track is one of Jacksonville’s top priorities. Coaches believe he’s got the talent to be one of the best backs in the league — a guy whose worn cleats would be a collector’s item — but they have to keep him healthy, in shape, motivated and focused.
“Those young guys at that age, I always think they need a little more push, a little bit more guidance, a little bit more leadership,” Robiskie said. “Leonard is one of those guys. He’s got the ambition. He’s got the heart.
“I think he wants to win. I don’t think he wants to win a game. I think he wants to be a part of something special. I think he wants to win a Super Bowl, and I think the year before last, that little taste that he had, I think that kind of helped push it a little bit more.”