Offseason lessons lead to success for Valladay
TUCSON, Ariz., -- Leonard Fournette's Laramie offseason training seems to have paid off.
The Jacksonville Jaguars running back rushed for 1,152 yards this season and found the end zone three times. More importantly, he averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
Even more important than that -- he was healthy enough to run the ball 265 times.
His protege saw similar results.
Wyoming tailback Xazavian Valladay carried the ball 221 times so far this season, racking up 1,061 yards in his first season as the Cowboys featured back. He's faced injuries. In week two at Texas State, the sophomore suffered an ankle injury. It nagged him throughout the 2019 campaign.
Yet, he still kept ticking.
Before Wyoming hosted its oldest rival, Colorado State, on Nov. 22, Valladay could barely walk let alone play football. That Thursday, head coach Craig Bohl was doubtful his star back would play. That all changed on a frigid Friday night at War Memorial Stadium when Valladay slashed, bashed and outran the Rams for 154 yards.
It was his fifth straight 100-yard day.
So, where does Fournette come in? Valladay said he got to witness how a pro goes about their business.
"When Leonard first got here in early spring, I saw him working out and I thought, 'I used to watch this guy on TV,'" Valladay said with a smile. "I introduced myself and I picked his brain a couple times, knowing what type of guys he is. He's one of the best NFL running backs I've ever met. Just the passion he has. He has a big heart, and showed me how he is as a man and as a father."
Ben Iannacchione, Wyoming's strength and conditioning coach, worked with Fournette during two seasons at LSU. He said the running back wanted to get back to basics after a 2018 NFL season that saw him rush for just 439 yards on 133 carries.
Fournette was touted as the next star when he left Baton Rouge. Last year, he played just eight games in an injury filled campaign.
"He wanted to get back to what made him at LSU," Iannacchinoe said. "I told him he could come work out with us.
"But we are going to work."
Fournette did just that, holing himself up in a Laramie hotel room for months and spending his days at the High Altitude Performance Center.
He pushed his limits. He gained muscle and speed. He inadvertently mentored the Wyoming football program. Especially Valladay.
"He taught me some things about the running back position," Valladay said. "I was getting his thoughts of how a running back is supposed to be and move. He shared his knowledge and intellect with me. He enjoyed being a role model for me."
Valladay didn't get into detail about what the two would discuss, only sharing that running laterally is not the way to success. Fournette told him to get vertical as soon as possible. Valladay showed Missouri that lesson in week one when he busted through a hole and ripped off a 61-yard touchdown run.
Iannacchione said it was important for everyone to see a pro go to work everyday. Valladay, he said, took the most from the experience.
"Even before X asked if I trained him, I asked if he would like to talk to Leonard," he said. "We would Facetime him and X was drawn to him a bit. It was good for guys who desire to play in NFL one day."
UW running backs coach Gordie Haug said Valladay has "exceeded expectations" this season. Haug, along with the rest of the staff, worried about Valladay's durability. He weighs just 196 pounds. Keeping weight on has been an issue.
The Matteson, Illinois, product responded with 763 yards rushing on 162 carries over the last six games. He has been the Pokes workhorse -- to say the least.
"He's answered the bell," Haug said. "He's mentally maturing. He's a guy who has to live in training room. He's taken that to heart, coming back stronger every week. I'm definitely proud of him."
Valladay has an open invite to text or call Fournette anytime he wants. Whether that's to talk about football or life. Anything is on the table.
Maybe that first call will come after today's Arizona Bowl, where Valladay and the Cowboys will take on Georgia State. The Panthers give up more than 200 rushing yards per contest.
A healthy Valladay said he's looking forward to the opportunity to showcase what he can do one last time in 2019.
"It's just a blessing, man," he said. "It's God, hanging in there with me, giving me the strength and ability to execute anything that comes my way."