By that time Peterson's name was showing up in various Heisman polls, provoking debate among followers of the college game: Would it be kosher for a kid so young to win the Heisman? No freshman or sophomore ever has. But now elite first-year players, guys who have been leaving early for the NFL, are taking on an ever-increasing role in the college game. Smart coaches figure, If I'm only going to have this guy for three years, I'm going to get the most out of him right away. So why not give a Heisman to a freshman? As Peterson himself said last week, "If you're good, you're good."
While Peterson may prove to be this decade's Herschel Walker, he also got a little help from his friends. The linemen favor zone-blocking schemes, but it took Peterson awhile to get the hang of giving the big guys time to clear a hole. "He's learning every week," says center Vince Carter, "and he'll be the first one to tell you he has a long way to go. He'll break an 80-yard run and come to the sideline and ask us, 'Was that good? Was I tight enough to the double team?' He's always looking to improve. That's one of the best things about him."
Until Peterson figured out the pass-blocking schemes, he'd come out of the game on throwing downs. Now he stays in. "It's funny," says White. "If he misses a block and I get hit by his guy, he'll come up to me and say"--White impersonates the humble freshman--"'Sorry, Jason.'"
Peterson may also be sorry for sucking some of the oxygen out of White's Heisman candidacy--about which the quarterback professes (convincingly) to care little. If Peterson gets it, "he deserves it," says White, who as a past Heisman winner has a vote. "I got one."
that stiff-armed man cast in bronze sits on the mantel at his parents' home in Tuttle, Okla., mocking White just a little, reminding him of how the '03 season turned to ashes. Recalling the final two games of last season, members of the Big 12 media made Kansas State running back Darren Sproles their preseason offensive player of the year. The guy with the Heisman even had to share preseason all-conference quarterback honors with Missouri's Brad Smith. Those slights did not surprise White, considering the abuse he'd absorbed in the off-season. "After everything that was said about me after the last two games," he says, "I have a whole new outlook. I'm much tougher mentally."
So he was happy to hand off the ball more at the start of this season, passing a couple of dozen times a game rather than the 32 attempts he averaged in '03. "If we'd won all our games last season," he says, "I might have felt a little constrained--you know, 'Hey, it worked last year.' Now I realize what we needed."
"Having the running game we do takes a lot of pressure off Jason," says J.D. Runnels, the Sooners' superb fullback. It also takes some pressure off White's bodyguards. On certain bootlegs and play-action calls, says Runnels, "the defense is so worried about the run game, we don't even have to block anybody."
Following Peterson's performance against Texas, opposing defensive coordinators started loading the box against the run, so White began airing it out. In Oklahoma's last six games he averaged 34 attempts and 289 passing yards. After throwing nine touchdown passes over the first five games, White threw 21 over the next six.
The Sooners' two-pronged attack was best exemplified at Oklahoma State on Oct. 30. The Cowboys stuffed Peterson in the first half, holding him to 53 yards on 14 carries. "So we threw on 'em," says White, who fired three first-half touchdowns. "In the second half they took away the throw, and we started running on 'em." Midway through the third quarter Peterson busted loose for a spectacular 80-yard touchdown run, and the next time he touched the ball, he went for 56 yards. He finished with a season-high 249 yards in a 38-35 win.
The day after that victory in Stillwater, the Oklahoma quarterback lost his grandfather, George White. The funeral was the following Wednesday in Defiance, Mo. A delayed flight out of Oklahoma City forced Jason and his sister, Jennifer, to drive all night. One of the speakers at the service dwelled on how proud George was of his grandson. As Jason's father, Ron, told the Tulsa World, "Jason lost it then."