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Spring football eases pain

Adrian Peterson - photo by LaizurePhoto
Ever Elusive
Peterson preparing for 2005 with as little fanfare as possible

Adrian Peterson will be one of the most watched college football players this fall despite ranking among the least heard players this past spring.

After running his way into the national spotlight as a freshman, the University of Oklahoma tailback was rarely seen during the spring semester as he nursed an ailing shoulder. Peterson did not participate in spring football practices or scrimmages, and he used his elusiveness to avoid media interviews as though they were linebackers zeroing in on him.

Peterson’s “I vont to be alone” act would have made the late, great Greta Garbo proud. Yet, so many college football enthusiasts — Sooner fans in particular — are eager to learn how he’s doing as the 2005 season approaches.

So here is the bottom line on Peterson’s health: he should be good to go this fall.
“He is 100 percent healthy,” said running backs coach Cale Gundy. “He’s been cleared, he went through his rehab over the past few months and he is going full speed now.”
Gundy, who now doubles as OU football’s recruiting coordinator, said Peterson’s shoulder last year “popped out a couple of times and he just needed to get it tightened back up, which happens all the time in our sport.”

Although getting a shoulder separation fully healed can be tricky business, OU offensive coordinator Chuck Long agreed with Gundy’s assessment. “He was feeling good by the end of spring, and we expect him to be full go by the fall,” Long said.

The high interest in Peterson is understandable because he had the finest campaign ever by a freshman running back. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound phenom set the NCAA freshman rushing record with 1,925 yards, and he became the first college player to gain at least 100 rushing yards in his first nine games.

Peterson not only lived up to his hype coming out of Palestine, Texas, he exceeded it. The 2003 National High School Player of the Year kept the beat going in Norman by becoming the first OU freshman to make the Associated Press All-America team, and the first from any school since North Carolina defensive back Dre Bly pulled it off in 1996.
His runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy race is the best ever by a college rookie. He also was the first freshman finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back.

“He had one of the best years ever for a freshman,” Long said before pausing to correct himself. “Not only for a freshman,” he amended, “but for any running back. He was excellent.”

The accolades continue this year. The Sporting News named Peterson the nation’s top college football running back, placed him on its 2005 preseason All-America list and predicted he would be the Big 12 Conference offensive player of the year.

Debates raged through the second half of last season on who was the team’s best player: Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jason White or his freshman backfield mate. Many OU fans said White was the team’s leader, but the quarterback ranked among Peterson’s biggest fans.

“The thing that impressed me about Adrian was all the games where he had 20 yards in the first half, then came out and kept running hard in the second half,” White told an ESPN reporter last fall. “A lot of young running backs won’t do that. They’ll get frustrated.”

Peterson’s shoulder frustrations began when he had a mild separation last August during a preseason practice. The injury could have derailed the season before it even started, but the OU training staff did its best not to let that happen. By opening day, he came off the bench and gained exactly 100 yards at home against Bowling Green. Two weeks later, he wowed the state with a 183-yard, two-touchdown performance against Oregon, and the nation took notice soon after that when he ran roughshod over arch-rival Texas with 225 yards.

From that point on, Peterson made college football fans think the unthinkable — that a freshman actually could win a Heisman Trophy.

It’s little wonder, then, for future expectations to be so high. And with White, Mark Clayton, Jammal Brown and Brandon Jones making the leap from the OU offense to the National Football League, Peterson will be under even more scrutiny from media and fans.

That much attention could cause many people to duck the spotlight whenever possible, especially a soft-spoken person like Peterson.

“If people would just let him be a college student, let him try to enjoy a good college life, he’d be all right,” Gundy said. “But again, when you’ve got people calling all the time wanting to do interviews, it can wear on you. But he does a good job of avoiding that anyway.”

Yes, coach, he does.

OU will have a new starting quarterback, new faces on the line and the absence of security blanket Mark Clayton. All eyes, then, will fall on Peterson, easily the most recognized and accomplished player back on offense.

But more attention on Peterson will not translate into a bigger workload. He toted the pigskin last year an NCAA freshman-record 339 times, a hefty average of 26 times per game. He can’t reasonably do much more than that.

“We expect our quarterback, whoever it is, to carry his share of the load just like anybody else on the team,” Long said. “We probably rushed the ball 40 snaps a game anyway last year with Jason White. I think that number is going to remain the same anyway.
“We’re not going to rush it 60 times,” Long reasoned, “especially with a guy that had a shoulder problem. We don’t want to bang him up too early.”

Besides, coaches say, Peterson won’t need to shoulder a bigger load because of fellow backs Kejuan Jones and Donta Hickson backing him up. Jones started at the beginning of last season, and both made worthy contributions. Jones gained 513 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns last season, and Hickson was OU’s second-leading rusher in the Big 12 Conference championship game. The OU staff also liked what they saw from Jacob Gutierrez during the spring.

Some have wondered whether Peterson would become more of a receiving threat this year after catching only five passes in 2004. He may get a few more passes his way, but it doesn’t appear to be a point of emphasis.

Gundy said it would depend on game situations. “If people are open downfield, the quarterback throws it downfield,” he said. “If it’s not, then he comes off to his second and third receivers which sometimes includes backs and sometimes doesn’t. But we don’t have designed plays where we say, ‘We’re going to throw it to Adrian.’”

Another question swirling around the OU camp is how well prepared Peterson will be after missing all of spring football. Time will be the final judge, but Long pointed out that Peterson wasn’t in Norman the previous spring, either, and it didn’t seem to bother him.
“He came in last fall as a true freshman who didn’t know anything and he did pretty well,” the offensive coordinator said. “Here, he has a year under his belt along with weight room work and a knowledge of the offense, so I think he’ll be fine.”

Peterson should enter fall camp just as prepared physically because the Sooners will remain on campus this summer working out. Long said offseason conditioning will be especially important for Peterson because of his missed spring.

“We feel that our summer program really sets us apart from a lot of programs nationally,” Long said. “Coach (Jerry) Schmidt does a great job and he’s gonna work all those guys hard this summer, including Adrian.”

While Peterson has made himself scarce to the media and his adoring fans, he has not wavered from a rigorous rehabilitation program for his surgically-repaired shoulder. That focus and commitment has kept him well ahead of pace for his scheduled return to the field this fall.

And that is all anyone should really be concerned about, at least where Sooner fans are concerned. Besides, if forced to make a choice, would you rather have a vocal player who doesn’t perform or a media-shy guy whose play speaks volumes?

Peterson is just trying to adjust to college life and get ready for another season of football, and he’s trying to do it with as little fanfare as possible. Even as the Sooners marched toward a national title game last season and Peterson found himself as one of the front-runners in the Heisman race, he was trying his best to keep things simple.

“I just want to be a normal guy and live the life of an average college student. I know that’s hard to do under these circumstances, but I do my best to keep things from getting too crazy,” Peterson said in a December interview.

Things promise to get even crazier this season and by all indications, Peterson’s shoulder is better and he’s doing everything his coaches ask to get in shape and be prepared to help the Sooners enjoy another banner season.

And really, that’s all that matters anyway.