- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It’s been more than two decades since a freshman rocked the college football world like Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson.

And if the Sooner Stallion and Sports Illustrated coverboy runs over No.22 Texas A&M; today en route to his ninth consecutive 100-yard effort, Peterson will be positioned to put an unparalleled bronze perspective on the definition of freshman impact.

“If you voted right now, I think you’d have to give the Heisman to Peterson,” said venerable college football analyst Beano Cook minutes after Peterson slashed through Oklahoma State’s defense to the tune of 249 yards last week, lifting the second-ranked Sooners (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) to a 38-35 victory. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a freshman this special.”

How long? Over the last 25 years, only three other freshmen played starring roles for undefeated national title contenders.

In 2002, Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett was clearly the Buckeyes’ offensive catalyst. But Clarett’s bruising brilliance was somewhat tainted by a recurring shoulder injury that forced him to the sideline for all or parts of four games. The result was a freshman campaign long on scintillating snapshots but short on statistical dominance (only 1,237 yards) and blue-collar consistency (only 222 carries).

In 1999, Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick redefined the dual-threat nature of the position, mocking logic with his speed, quickness and arm strength as he led the nation in passing efficiency (180.37, an NCAA freshman record) and brought the Hokies to within one quarter of the national title. (Tech led Florida State 29-28 entering the fourth quarter at the Sugar Bowl before 18 unanswered points from the Seminoles sabotaged a perfect season).

But Vick, who finished third in the Heisman vote in 1999, was a redshirt freshman, not a true gridiron greenhorn. He had the benefit of spending a year within the Hokies system as well as its weight room where he added bulk to his once skinny frame.

Fact is, you have to go all the way back to Herschel Walker’s debut season at Georgia to find a true freshman who can challenge Peterson’s lengthening list of Heisman credentials.

Walker arrived in Athens in 1980 with an NFL body chiseled by a homemade workout regimen he began at age 12. That’s when he decided to supplement his passion for poetry by doing 300 push-ups and 500 sit-ups a day. And the 215-pound sculpture could run like few backs before or since, clocking in at 9.1 seconds in the 100-yard dash, a time that would still qualify Walker as a medal-caliber sprinter.

Legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, coming off a 5-6 season in 1979, turned his offense over to the freshman who ran like a steel wedge on skates. And 12 victories and a freshman record 1,616 yards (not including a bowl game) later, Walker was an All-American and the ‘Dawgs were national champions.

“Nobody had ever seen a true freshman who was so precocious and yet so mature,” said Loran Smith, who has been intimately associated with Georgia football as a player, columnist and sideline analyst for nearly 50 years. “He ran off tackle better than anyone the SEC had ever seen. Guys would try to hit him up high and wind up practically concussed. Half of their games were effectively over after one or two series, because the linebackers on the opposing teams were already grimacing and ready to go home.

“I think the two most remarkable things about his freshman season were that he didn’t fumble one time and his performance against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.”

Walker separated his shoulder on the second play against the Irish, a team that hadn’t allowed a back to rush for 100 yards all season. The injury would have sent most backs to the showers. But after the Georgia trainers popped the joint back into place, Walker returned for the Bulldogs’ next possession and carried the ball 34 more times despite the bum wing, scoring both Georgia touchdowns in a 17-10 victory and rushing for 150 yards while the Irish held the rest of his teammates to minus 23 yards.

But Walker, despite feats that helped land him on the cover of Sports Illustrated that year, still didn’t win the Heisman in 1980, receiving a greater percentage of the vote (25.5 percent) than any freshman before or since but still finishing third behind South Carolina’s George Rogers and Pittsburgh’s Hugh Green.

“Herschel had outplayed Rogers head-to-head,” said Smith, referring to Walker outgaining Rogers 219 yards to 168 in the Bulldogs’ victory over the Gamecocks. “I always thought he deserved the Heisman, but they just weren’t going to give it to a freshman.”

Said Cook: “I don’t know what we were thinking. Sure, Herschel should have won it. But there was a stigma then about giving the award to a freshman that I don’t think is nearly as strong today.”

It’s still strong enough that neither of ESPN’s top college football analysts (Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit) listed Peterson among their current top-five Heisman contenders during Thursday night’s broadcast of the Louisville-Memphis game. Both acknowledged Peterson was having a great season while asserting he was more of a freshman novelty than the nation’s finest player.

Novelties don’t average 159 rushing yards a game, the third-highest per game average in the nation and the highest ever for a freshman. The only marquee back ahead of Peterson in the rankings, Texas senior Cedric Benson (162.1 yards), managed just 92 yards when the pair met on the same field in Dallas last month; Peterson dwarfed the senior citizen by galloping for 225 yards in the Sooners’ 12-0 victory.

Novelties don’t supplant the defending Heisman winner as the focal point of their team’s offense — exactly what Peterson has done since arriving in Norman, turning sixth-year senior Jason White into a second option. In Oklahoma’s two games against ranked teams this season (against Texas and Oklahoma State), offensive coordinator Chuck Long has leaned on his freshman phenom, and the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder from Palestine (Texas) responded with his two biggest outings — averaging 32.5 carries and 237 yards.

And novelties don’t have the speed to run wide, the burst to outrun safeties (witness last week’s 80-yard touchdown scamper), the power to push the pile between the tackles and wear down defenses and the durability to average more than 25 carries a game.

“AD is a special player,” said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, using the nickname Peterson’s father gave him for his ability to go “all day” without tiring. “I think compliments can be poisonous, particularly for young players. But he’s very, very special.”

Heisman special?

“Absolutely,” said Long earlier this week. “Think of it this way: He’s totally changed the offensive complexion of a team that went to the national title game last year and returned the Heisman Trophy winner and basically everybody else. … Maybe the most special thing about him is he might be the only one around here who won’t tell you how special he is.”

In fact, Peterson has remained almost completely mum on the subject of the Heisman and whether a freshman should receive consideration.

“That’s for other people to talk about and decide,” said Peterson, who has three more regular season games and likely the Big 12 championship to impress Heisman voters. “Whatever happens, happens. I’ll just go run.”

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