HOOVER, Ala. – The Southeastern Conference lost a staggering amount of star power, ranging from the No. 1 pick in the draft (Jadeveon Clowney) to a Heisman Trophy winner (Johnny Manziel) to a quarterback with multiple championship rings (AJ McCarron, who takes show-stopping wife Katherine Webb with him).
So the hunt has been on here at SEC Media Days to identify the new leading men of the league. But there is a good chance the Next Big Thing isn't here, and hasn't yet even suited up for a college game.
His name is Leonard Fournette, and listening to the LSU contingent here talk about the freshman running back is to hear a legend grow in real time.
"Leonard Fournette? Man," said senior teammate Terrence Magee, who is actually competing with Fournette for carries. "I know you've already heard about him. Who hasn't? I think he's going to have a great year. I'm excited to watch him play."
Magee estimated that it took him "about seven seconds" to figure out Fournette was the real deal. He saw the New Orleans product break one long run on film and was sold.
"There are three elements: power, speed and vision," Magee said. "If you have all three, you're going to be considered a great back. I'll be honest, I only have two. He's got all three."
Comparisons have been made to Adrian Peterson, which pretty well sets the bar as high as it can go. Peterson is the best college running back I've ever seen in person, and after seeing him in summer 7-on-7 drills, Magee says it's an accurate comparison for Fournette.
"To be honest, that's the only guy playing the running back position you can compare him to," Magee said. "I feel like I'm getting my opportunity to play with [Peterson]. …I still get a 'wow' factor seeing him catch the ball and run away from people who have been here as long as me."
LSU coach Les Miles compared his 6-foot-1, 224-pound back to another American sports icon: Michael Jordan.
"I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan," Miles said. "Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting him to be better than any. …That's the kind of player Leonard Fournette is."
That's a lot of praise for a teenager, especially given the long history of overhyped players who failed to live up to their advance billing. But LSU people rave as much about Fournette's work ethic and attitude as his physical attributes. This is one five-star prospect (the No. 4 overall player in the Rivals.com class of 2014) who did not bring a diva attitude with him to campus.
"He's quiet," Miles said. "He's not assuming. He's humble in his approach."
The city of New Orleans has produced an endless succession of great football players, but people in the Crescent City believe Fournette might be their best running back. And yes, that includes Marshall Faulk, who was nowhere near as polished at this stage of his career.
"I can't think of another back as good as him," John Curtis High School coach J.T. Curtis, a 44-year coaching veteran, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune last December. "I've played against big backs, and I've played against fast backs, and I've played against quick backs. He has the unique ability to combine all three together. He's special."
The question is how much Fournette will be featured in an LSU offense that is nearly starting from scratch at the skill positions. There will be a new starting quarterback and new starting wide receivers, but a bit of a backlog at running back. In addition to Fournette, LSU has seniors Magee (759 career rushing yards) and Kenny Hilliard (1,110 career rushing yards).
Miles has usually preferred playing multiple running backs, rotating them throughout the course of a game, and even having a prodigy in the backfield might not change that.
"We need those guys that have fresh legs," Miles said. "I think you can always kind of count on that from us."
But Miles also has never been afraid to play freshmen, and it's something he's used to his advantage in recruiting. While some schools talk a good game about immediate playing time, Miles can point to the 19 true freshmen who played in 2012 and '13 at LSU as proof of it.
Of course, that play-them-early approach has led to a lot of guys staying only three seasons in Baton Rouge – a total of 16 Tigers have declared for the NFL draft early in the past two years alone, Miles said. That, in turn, has increased the pressure on recruiting ready-to-play prospects to fill in the depth chart. It's similar to the Kentucky basketball cycle or constantly needing to replenish the roster.
"We do lead college football in three‑and‑outs," Miles joked. "…If we didn't have quality freshmen coming in, it would be very difficult to handle that. We will play freshmen. We'll train them, we'll prepare them and we'll put them on the field."
Leonard Fournette figures to be on the field early and often for LSU this fall. If he lives up to the huge hype, he will be the SEC's next star player.