While Billy Sims took in an Oklahoma practice this preseason, another Red River legend came to his mind whenever he watched freshman Samaje Perine.
“The strength, the power, the way he ran over people, it kept reminding me of Earl Campbell back in the day,” said Sims, who the Heisman Trophy for the Sooners in 1978, a year after Campbell won it at Texas in 1977.
Perine is no Earl Campbell yet.
But he’s off to an Earl Campbell-like start to his career.
The 5-foot-11, 243-pound “Tank” -- though “Optimus Perine” is his preferred nickname -- came a yard away from rushing for his weight, finishing with 242 yards and four touchdowns in Oklahoma’s 45-33 victory at West Virginia over the weekend.
Perhaps just as impressive, Perine carried the ball 34 times and afterward looked like as if he had done nothing more than taken a light morning jog.
“He works so hard with his conditioning and training,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s a guy that can handle all those carries. At the end of the game he wasn’t all that taxed. I saw him get on the bus and he looked great. He’s exceptional in his conditioning and his strength. He’s physically gifted that way.”
Like Campbell used to do to opposing defenses in the 1970s, Perine wore the West Virginia defenders down as they bounced off him like pingpong balls. While the Mountaineers' resolve to tackle him began to wane in the second half, Perine seemed to get stronger, as he finished with 84 of his rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
“He was able to sustain it for four quarters,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “That tells you what kind of shape he’s in.”
The emergence of Perine, who now leads the Big 12 with 419 rushing yards and five touchdowns, has left the Oklahoma offense in great shape, too, heading into the heart of the schedule. After the open week this weekend, the Sooners face three of the toughest front sevens in the league in TCU, Texas and Kansas State. But this Oklahoma rushing offense is beginning to smack of the Barry Switzer days when the Sooners could run right through opponents when they wanted to.
“I was glad to see the ground-and-pound game,” Sims said. “Let the big guys up front eat and the backs do their thing.”
The big guys up front ate well again after the game, too, courtesy of Perine. Showing he doesn’t just have physical maturity, Perine ordered pizzas for the entire offensive line Sunday.
“We were watching film, and he just walked right in and set the boxes of pizza down and walked out,” center Ty Darlington said. “That’s who he is.”
Though Perine was one of the major storylines in college football over the weekend, he wasn’t even the most highly touted running back in Oklahoma’s signing class. Joe Mixon, suspended for the year for an altercation before the season, was viewed as the gem of the recruiting class, with offers from every major program in the country. Perine, who hailed from the Austin, Texas, suburb of Pflugerville, didn’t even receive an offer from Campbell's Longhorns as he recovered from a knee injury his junior year and barely averaged double-digit carries his senior season for Hendrickson High School.
The Sooners, however, always felt Perine was a unique talent.
“He’s a very special player,” Stoops said. “We felt that all along in the recruiting process. We loved him. Physically, he’s so powerful and strong. He’s also got great vision, great speed. He’s got hands."
While Sims invoked Campbell to describe Perine, Stoops didn’t hesitate to compare Perine's immediate impact to other great runners to pass through Norman in recent years like Quentin Griffin and Adrian Peterson.
“Samaje, his performance the other night, was as good as any of those in one game,” Stoops said. “I believe he’ll continue to add on to it. He’s a similar player like that. He’s unusual in that his size and power are different than maybe anyone else we’ve had.
“We’ll see if he can continue to build on it.”
Sims, however, is a believer that will happen.
“After watching him in practice, what he’s doing now, it doesn’t surprise me,” Sims said. “Oklahoma is known for great running backs. He has the potential to be the next."