College football: Could Adrian Peterson be the end of the feature back era?

BY CODY STAVENHAGEN, Staff Writer, cstavenhagen@opubco.com Published: August 20, 2014
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Ten years ago, Adrian Peterson set college football’s conventional wisdom up in flames by rushing for an NCAA freshman record 1,925 yards.

Built in the Earl Campbell mold of a workhorse running back, he has gone on to a storied NFL career featuring six Pro Bowls and an MVP season.

Thanks largely to his style, there’s little debate against “All Day” being the best running back in the league. But as career expectancies decline and the running-back-by-committee becomes more popular, could he be among the last of a dying breed?

‘WHY SHOULDN’T WE GIVE HIM THE BALL?’

Before Peterson ever took a handoff for the Oklahoma Sooners, he carried every expectation that comes with being the nation’s No. 1 player — a 6-foot-1, 217-pound running back with a 4.3-second 40-yard dash time.

But Chuck Long, OU’s offensive coordinator from 2002-05, knew to keep his outlook realistic.

“You always think, ‘Well, he was great in high school and he’s the No. 1 player in the country and all that, but this is a new level,’” Long said. “It was going to take some time.”

OU quarterback Jason White, the defending Heisman Trophy winner heading into that 2004 season, found out quickly that didn’t apply to Peterson.

“When he walks into the training facility as a freshman, we were all looking at this guy like, ‘He looks like he’s been here for five years,’” White said. “His build, the way he ran, things like that, it was like, ‘Holy cow, this guy is definitely not a freshman.’”

Soon after, Long discovered for himself.

“We knew by Day Two of practice, probably Day One of pads, he could play at this level right away,” Long said. “In all my years of playing and coaching, especially coaching, I’ve never seen a kid that I felt that way about right away. The only other guy I played with was Barry Sanders.”

At 18 years old, Peterson was sculpted like a god, carried himself like a senior and was gifted with unmatched competitive drive.

“At times in practice, we had to tell him to settle down, tell him, ‘You don’t have to do that, those are your teammates, we don’t want them hurt,’” Long said.

Built in the Earl Campbell mold of a workhorse tailback, Peterson was quickly used like one. Despite having a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, the Sooners started moving away from shotgun sets, putting White under center and letting Peterson go to work as a deep back.

He carried 339 times that season. That’s three more carries per game than Billy Sims got out of a wishbone offense for OU in 1978.

“I remember talking with the coaches and saying, ‘Hey, the guy can fly, he runs hard every time he touches the ball, he doesn’t turn it over. Why shouldn’t we give him the ball?’” White said.

Peterson ended up second to USC’s Matt Leinart in the Heisman Trophy voting, and White — who finished third — said he still thinks Peterson should have won.

Ten years later, Peterson is the Minnesota Vikings’ franchise player, and in 2012 — a year after tearing his ACL— he won the NFL MVP after running for 2,097 yards.

He carried 348 times that season, a rarity in today’s NFL. But not all that long ago, bell-cow backs were synonymous with stardom.

HOT COMMODITIES

If anyone knows the value of the running back position, it’s Barry Switzer.

The legendary OU coach had true feature backs with Marcus Dupree out of the I-formation at OU and Emmitt Smith with the Dallas Cowboys.

However, Switzer is best known as the innovator of the multiple-back wishbone offense. In the late 1970s, Switzer had three first-round NFL picks (Sims, David Overstreet and Elvis Peacock) and a third-round pick (Kenny King) playing in the same backfield.

With Switzer as the master, the halfback position caused some of the most heated recruiting wars in history.

“I had to have one,” Switzer said. “I had four picks in my backfield at the same time because we recruited a bevy of them. We were a three-back offense. We ran the football.”

At the same time, Switzer recognized how to use one elite runner in an option-based offense.

“The wishbone isn’t a place to get the ball to a halfback 30 times a game, but I made sure when Billy Sims went in the ballgame, we had enough predetermined plays where Billy is going to touch it,” Switzer said.

Up the road at Oklahoma State, Pat Jones helped architect Tailback U. Jones recruited and coached all-time greats in Thurman Thomas and Sanders, and though Jones said he doesn’t believe the running back position is dying, he does admit it was in greater demand in the days before spread offenses were the norm.

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