Words don't come easily to Adrian Peterson. Strolling across the manicured grounds of the Georgia Southern campus, the Eagles' most celebrated athlete greets schoolmates with a big smile and a pronounced stutter—the result of a speech impediment he has battled since he was a toddler in the four-stoplight town of Alachua, Fla. "It's getting better," says Peterson, a 21-year-old junior fullback. "I think I can overcome it."
In a different green space, from end zone to end zone, there are few impediments that Peterson hasn't conquered. Last season Peterson rushed for 2,704 yards, including 897 in the postseason, as the Eagles won the I-AA title. He also became the first sophomore to win the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the most outstanding I-AA player. Last Saturday against Johnson C. Smith, he ripped off 162 yards on 17 carries, marking the 24th consecutive regular-season game in which he had rushed for at least 100 yards and leaving him seven games shy of matching the NCAA record set by Ohio State's double Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Griffin, in the 1973 through '75 seasons. With an average of 168.9 yards rushing per game, Peterson is on pace to finish with 7,431 for his career, eclipsing the division record of 6,193 set in 1998 by Jerry Azumah of New Hampshire. "I don't think anyone can shut him down," says Georgia coach Jim Donnan, whose Bulldogs surrendered 152 yards to Peterson in a 29-7 Georgia victory on Sept. 2. "It's like playing against Michael Jordan: You've got to hope you can hold down his points and hope that the other guys around him don't beat you."
Peterson shrugs off the notion that he may become Division I-AA's most viable Heisman candidate since Steve McNair of Alcorn State finished third in the 1994 balloting. Peterson, 5' 10", 212 pounds, with 4.5 speed in the 40, is less thrilled about the possibility of winning a trophy than about stiff-arming would-be tacklers.
Eagles coach Paul Johnson considers himself fortunate to have Peterson's services. "I thought for sure that he'd end up at Florida, like his brother [Mike, now an Indianapolis Colts linebacker]," says Johnson. Several schools stopped recruiting Peterson after he failed to meet the NCAA minimum on his first crack at the SATs. (He would qualify on his second try.) Johnson wonders whether Peterson's stuttering caused a communication breakdown during telephone recruiting calls. "Everyone knew he was a pretty good player coming out of high school," says Johnson, "but there was no way of knowing he was this good."
While Johnson points out areas in which Peterson could use some work (blocking, reading defenses), he concedes that Peterson doesn't have far to go in his quest to join his big brother in the pros. Such a compliment from the normally taciturn coach leaves Peterson speechless, this time out of modesty. "I have a ways to go," says Peterson, "but I guess I am"—he searches for the right word—"blessed."