The year was 1980 and the Georgia Bulldogs were looking to rebound from a disappointing 6-5 campaign a year earlier. Enter Herschel Walker, a freshman tailback from tiny Wrightsville, Ga.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Walker emerged as one of college football’s best players, captivating the nation in the process. He rushed for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns to lead Georgia to an 11-0 regular-season record. Then, courtesy of a 150-yard, two-touchdown performance, Walker lifted his team to a 17-10 win against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, a victory that crowned the Bulldogs as national champions.
Fast forward 24 years and the nation is watching a remake of that drama, only this time the setting is Norman, Okla., and our hero is from the East Texas hamlet of Palestine. Other than that, the script hasn’t really changed.
Adrian Peterson, too, has emerged as one of the nations’ best and has been a key cog in helping the Sooners to an 11-0 regular-season record. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound tailback has racked up 1,671 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, numbers quite similar to the ones Walker posted as a freshman. More eerily similar is the way Peterson has captivated the college football world.
For his performance this season, Peterson has been named the Rivals.com National Freshman of the Year.
“He's the real deal,” Oklahoma offensive tackle Jammal Brown said. “He makes plays on his own. We block well for him, but a lot of times the things he does are all him. He'll make the first guys miss and he'll outrun the last guy. He's the future and will take Oklahoma a long ways in the next few years.”
While his linemen are quick to credit Peterson, he’s equally quick to return the praise.
“If the offensive line keeps opening those big holes,” Peterson said, “I'll keep running through them.”
It was expected that Peterson, who was rated by Rivals.com last February as the nation’s No. 1 prospect, would be a special player at the college level, but not many expected it to happen as quickly as it has. But he served notice out of the gate that he would be an impact player as a freshman with 16 carries for 100 yards and a touchdown in a 40-24 victory against Bowling Green.
From there, eight consecutive 100-yard games followed, an NCAA record for freshmen, including jaw-dropping performances against Texas and Oklahoma State. He shredded the Longhorns for 225 yards on 32 carries in a 12-0 victory, and then gashed the Cowboys for 249 yards, including an electrifying 80-yard touchdown run, in a 38-35 victory.
Only in the season's 10th game, a 30-3 win against Nebraska, was Peterson held to less than 100 yards, as, nursing a sore shoulder, he finished with just 58 yards on 15 carries. Still, he left the opposition shaking their collective heads.
“I’ve been around one truly great one, (former Wisconsin tailback) Ron Dayne, as a freshman,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove said. “This guy is different. He’s faster than Ron and he has more shake than Ron did when he was a freshman. He’s a special player.”
Peterson, who on Monday was announced as a first-team choice on the Rivals.com Freshman All-America Team, rallied from his outing against the Cornhuskers to close the regular season with 240 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-0 victory at Baylor.
His play has put Peterson in position to capture some prestigious postseason honors. He’s the first freshman ever to be named a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation’s top running back, and he’s also been mentioned as a Heisman candidate and could be invited to New York for the Dec. 11 ceremony.
It’s lofty status to be sure, but Peterson’s coach thinks his standout running back is deserving of the recognition.
“I don't think there's any question, a lot of people have seen Adrian and his abilities,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “Look what he's done in some of our biggest games. Look what he did in the Texas game head-to-head with Cedric Benson. And I think Cedric Benson is a heck of a player. Believe me, he is. But so is Adrian, and everybody has seen that.”
Still, there’s a feeling that Peterson may not get his just due because he’s only a freshman, a sentiment the young back scoffed at, saying, “I think if you're good, you're good. I don't think they should hold that against you.”
Despite all the talk of awards, Peterson remains more concerned about his team than any individual honors that might come his way. The Sooners play Colorado in the Big 12 championship game Saturday, and with a win, they will then wait to see if they remain in the top two in the BCS standings and earn the right to play for the national championship.
“We feel like we've gotten better as we've gone,” Peterson said. “We've got to continue and finish it off.”
Walker finished his off. The country will now watch to see if Peterson can do the same.
2004 National Freshman of the Week winners