JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Leonard Fournette sprinted right, took a couple of stutter steps while waiting for blockers, cut back sharply and then made another abrupt move to elude two defenders and find an even bigger opening.
He was celebrating in the end zone a few seconds later.
Fournette’s 21-yard touchdown scamper in an exhibition game against Atlanta was longer than any run he had during Jacksonville’s final seven games last season. It showed the kind of vision and burst Fournette lacked down the stretch as a rookie, and provided a glimpse of what the Jaguars expect from the centerpiece of their oft-maligned offense in 2018.
“I want to be great,” Fournette said.
With that in mind, Fournette shed more than 15 pounds this offseason in an effort to “take it back” to his college days. He now expects his second NFL season to look a lot like his sophomore year at LSU , the 2015 campaign in which he averaged 6.5 yards a carry, scored 22 touchdowns and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting.
Fournette insists he’s eating better, conditioning more and even doing 50 push-ups a night.
“I would say it is probably one of my first years feeling healthier than I ever did before,” he said.
The Jaguars are counting on it making a difference on the field, too.
Fournette carried 268 times for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017. He scored seven touchdowns in his first six games, including on runs of 90 and 75 yards.
He slowed significantly down the stretch, missing two games because of injuries and another because of a suspension. The Jaguars led the league in rushing, averaging 141.4 yards a game, but the ground attack was hardly the same during the second half of the season and the playoffs.
Jacksonville averaged 40 yards less a game over that stretch and was down a little more than a yard a carry.
The stalled ground attack reached a low point in the AFC title game at New England. Trying to milk the clock and preserve a lead, the Jags managed a measly 41 yards on 15 carries in the second half. More than a third of those yards (14) came on one play.
Fournette shouldered the blame, and the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft decided to do something about it. He got leaner and fitter in hopes of gaining a little more top-end speed and becoming a three-down back. He also plans to get out of bounds more often to save his body from the pain and pounding that comes with a 16-game schedule.
“It’s Year 2,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “You always look at Year 2 being in the same system and understanding everything: the speed of the game, the offense. That’s always going to amp up your production.”
Jacksonville made several other moves to help Fournette.
General manager Dave Caldwell and football czar Tom Coughlin signed All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell to a five-year, $66.5 million contract in free agency. They also revamped the receiving corps by signing big-play receiver Donte Moncrief and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, then selected speedy receiver DJ Chark in the second round of the draft.
Caldwell and Coughlin believe Norwell and a few more passing threats will help create more space for Fournette near the line of scrimmage.
And for Jacksonville — which wants to win games by running the ball and playing stout defense — that could mean everything in a season with Super Bowl aspirations.
Fournette being leaner could pay dividends, too.
“I feel like he’s faster,” defensive end Yannick Ngakoue said. “I can tell he’s been working hard.”
Some other things to know about Jacksonville heading into the season opener at the Giants:
DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE?: After finishing second in the NFL in yards allowed, points, sacks, takeaways and interceptions last year, Jacksonville’s defense believes it will be improved in 2018 . The unit returns 12 of its top 14 players, including eight starters who earned Pro Bowl honors in the last four years.
“We like to talk a lot of trash and back it up and make teams fear us,” All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Our ultimate goal is to strike intimidation, and people know that we know how good we are. That’s a good feeling to have.”
MISSING RECEIVER: The Jaguars will be without top receiver Marqise Lee for the season. Lee tore ligaments in his left knee in a preseason game, was placed on injured reserve and will have season-ending surgery. The team will rely on second-year pros Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook, one-year rental Moncrief and rookie Chark to fill the void.
POSTSEASON BOUND?: Jacksonville is looking for consecutive postseason berths for the second time in franchise history and first time since the 1998 and ’99 seasons.