Jaguars turn to young committee to replace Leonard Fournette

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — As stunning as Leonard Fournette’s departure was from Jacksonville, his replacement might be equally surprising.

And it could change weekly.

The Jaguars are planning to employ a running back-by-committee approach when the season begins Sept. 13 against Indianapolis. And veteran Chris Thompson, the only tailback on Jacksonville’s roster with an NFL rushing touchdown and the guy who knows coordinator Jay Gruden’s offense better than anyone else, likely won’t get the first carry.

Jacksonville expects to split the bulk of the work between second-year pro Devine Ozigbo and undrafted rookie James Robinson. And 2019 fifth-round draft pick Ryquell Armstead will serve primarily as a backup, with Thompson being a change-of-pace, third-down option.

“It looks like a bunch of fresh guys, just a bunch of big-eyed guys looking at the goal,” veteran running backs coach Terry Robiskie said. “They want an opportunity. I think they feel the opportunity is there. A group of guys that (are) ready to go meet the challenge, go prove themselves.

“Everybody in life wants an opportunity. I’ve got a group of guys that got a shot. They’ve got an opportunity here and it’s right before them.”

Two days after Jacksonville waived Fournette, the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year deal reportedly worth up to $3.5 million. The Jaguars will replace him with four guys making a little more than $3 million combined in 2020.

A three-year starter (2016-18) at Nebraska, the 225-pound Ozigbo landed on Jacksonville’s roster last September after being waived by New Orleans. He made his NFL debut in a victory against Indy in the season finale, running nine times for 27 yards and catching three passes for 23 more.

Coaches witnessed his dedication during the pandemic when he tweeted videos of himself working out in his garage with homemade weights consisting of tires and wheels.

“Struggle breads innovation,” Ozigbo wrote.

Ozigbo and Robinson really raised eyebrows early in training camp, with coach Doug Marrone saying the gap between them and Fournette was smaller than he expected.

“It was the first time in my career that I thought, ‘Wow, these guys are close,’” Marrone said. “These guys are really, really close. … Was there separation? Yes, but it was the closest I’ve ever seen.”

And when Fournette failed to distance himself from the younger guys in the next few weeks, parting with him became a more viable option.

“Those guys have been really outstanding back there,” Marrone said.

Robinson was a three-year starter at Illinois State, finishing second in school history with 4,444 yards rushing and 46 total touchdowns.

Although there were concerns about how he would stack up to NFL talent after starring in the Football Championship Subdivision, he alleviated those by totaling 136 yards from scrimmage in the East-West Shrine Bowl. He also held his own at the NFL scouting combine.

His 40-yard dash time — the sixth slowest among running backs at the annual event for general managers, scouts and coaches — kept him from getting drafted. The Jaguars gladly brought him in as an undrafted free agent.

He’s been a pleasant surprise in camp, even moving ahead of Armstead on the depth chart. The fifth-round pick in 2019 has missed considerable time with a groin injury and then an illness. Armstead ran 35 times for 108 yards as a rookie and caught 14 passes for 144 yards and two scores.

With Fournette gone, the Jaguars are counting on eighth-year pro Thompson to help the inexperienced trio get a firm grasp of Gruden’s playbook while making sure they learn how to be better pros on and off the field — the kind of leadership Fournette failed to provide in Jacksonville.

“They’re going to be able to get a lot more opportunities,” Thompson said. “I think they have a lot of potential we’re going to see here moving forward.”

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