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Friday, October 8, 2004
Peterson living up to the hype

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

There was no transition. There was never going to be a transition. Adrian Peterson stepped right into the Oklahoma lineup and gave life to the legend that preceded him in Norman.

He arrived at 6-feet-2, 210 pounds, with a 4.4 40-yard-dash time and a bench press of 295 pounds. Those are numbers that most tailbacks would like to have when they leave college.

He arrived after a senior year at Palestine (Texas) High in which he rushed for 2,960 yards and 32 touchdowns. He averaged nearly 12 yards a carry. Peterson's arrival raised the hopes of Sooner fans who have gotten accustomed to their team being at the top.

Yet Peterson is the rare signee whose recruiting hype may have underestimated his ability. The freshman has rushed for 546 yards and six touchdowns in four games. The average of 136.5 yards per game ranks eighth in Division I-A. None in the long line of outstanding Oklahoma backs, including Heisman Trophy winners Billy Vessels, Steve Owens and Billy Sims, had ever rushed for 100 yards in each of their first four games.

Until now.

He's not making this kind of splash just anywhere. He has made his arrival known in a program that has finished no lower than sixth in the last four seasons, and won the national championship in 2000.

College football isn't the NFL, where the best player is drafted by the worst team. In college football, the best players go to the best teams. At that, even the best freshmen usually need half a season to assert themselves. Peterson stepped right in and asserted himself. He rushed for 100 yards in his first collegiate game. He started his fourth game, last week against Texas Tech, and rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown.

Asked who stood out after his Houston team lost 63-13 at Oklahoma, Cougars coach Art Briles said, "No. 28, No. 9, No. 80, No. 10 or No. 42. It doesn't matter. They're all good players."

Maybe so, but the first number out of Briles' mouth wasn't senior wide receiver Mark Clayton (No. 9), or senior defensive end Dan Cody (No. 80), or senior linebacker Lance Mitchell (No. 10) or sophomore linebacker Rufus Alexander (No. 42). The first three are team captains and preseason All-Americans on one team or another. The first player that Briles mentioned was Peterson, No. 28.

This is a player who became a cause celebre because of a dispute over his residency -- in middle school. He has always been the star.

"He was probably 12 years old," recalled Steve Eudey, the father of a childhood friend of Peterson, and a man who for a year served as Peterson's legal guardian. "We took a team to Texarkana and played in a little football tournament. I don't think they ever tackled him all day long. That's when we began to see he was a little bit better than everybody else."

He is at Oklahoma, and after four games, he appears to be a little bit better than everybody else still. Don't misunderstand: Kejuan Jones, with whom Peterson shares a job, is a talented back, too. Peterson is a beneficiary of the most experienced offensive line in college football. He lines up directly behind the reigning Heisman winner, quarterback Jason White.

But Peterson is a freshman. Think how good he will be when he is comfortable in the Sooner offense. For instance, in an offense that loves to throw to its backs, he has caught one pass in four game.

After the 31-7 defeat of Oregon, quarterback Jason White said of Peterson, "He's learned from his mistakes from previous games. He's doing a better job with it. He's out there before and after practice, working on his steps and pass protection. He works to get better."

And now comes Texas. The Sooners are ranked second. The Longhorns are ranked fifth. This is the kind of game that makes legends. Four games aren't even half a season. It would be easy to get ahead of ourselves. But if four games are any indication, Peterson is on his way to writing his legend.

The number of freshmen tailbacks who can carry the load on a national championship team is small. Herschel Walker did so at Georgia in 1980. Maurice Clarett did so at Ohio State in 2002, although his young body couldn't withstand the punishment.

Now comes Peterson, a 19-year-old in a man's body, a freshman who stepped right into the most prolific offense in college football and made it better. Oklahoma threw and threw last season, and the Sooners scored and scored. But by the end of the season, the lack of a running game had caught up to them.

This season, the Sooners can run, and the biggest reason wears No. 28. Asked in an online chat whether Peterson was "the real deal," his blocker, fullback J.D. Runnels, said simply, "He's everything they say he is."

Enough said.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.