Their names were linked throughout the offseason.
Who was the nation’s top sophomore running back? LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine were just a few of the names that highlighted one of the strongest groups of true sophomore running backs college football has seen in years.
Midway through the 2015 season, several of those top ball carriers had cemented their names among the country's best, with Fournette leading the nation with 1,202 rushing yards and Freeman, Cook and McCaffery joining him among the top 10 in rushing yardage and yards per carry average (among ball carriers with 100 attempts or more) midway through October.
Perine, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. The Sooners star sat at 95th in the FBS with 420 rushing yards and 41st in yards per carry average at 4.52 on Oct. 17. While his peers were putting up big numbers, Perine had just one game with more than 100 rushing yards.
Yet you wouldn’t have been able to tell by his body language or effort on the field.
“Samaje is a real humble guy, very unselfish,” receiver Dede Westbrook said. “Whenever his number is called, that’s when he’s going to do Samaje things, but if you need Samaje to get out there and block somebody, he’s going to do it, no questions asked. He’s that humble, unselfish guy. That’s why I love him so much, that’s why I’d break my neck for him, on and off the field.”
Perine wasn’t sulking at his lack of production, instead proving to be a key part of the offense with his willingness to play a secondary role or put a stamp on the game with his blocking.
“Samaje is one of the most unselfish people I’ve ever met, I know that better than a lot of people,” said fullback Dimitri Flowers, who is Perine’s roommate. “He’s a special player. For him to have that kind of attitude makes everyone want to be like that, too. Everyone looks up to him, looks at him to see what he does because the spotlight is on him at all times. The way he carries himself is tremendous.”
Things changed -- most notably, the offensive line was retooled -- after the Sooners’ 24-17 loss to Texas on Oct. 10. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Perine averaged 1.74 rushing yards before contact in Oklahoma’s first five games before averaging 4.01 in the Sooners' final seven games, a sign of the offensive line’s improvement.
With better blocking up front, Perine’s yards-per-carry average rose immediately after not breaking 4.2 in four of Oklahoma’s first five games. He averaged 14.5 carries and 110.5 rushing yards with 7.6 yards per carry in victories over Kansas State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State.
And when the Sooners needed him most, Perine answered the call.
As Oklahoma rolled through a three-game stretch of Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State without a loss, Perine was unstoppable. The sophomore piled up 166 rushing yards against Baylor, 188 against TCU and 131 against the rival Cowboys as Oklahoma beat its top competition for the conference title by an average of 15.3 points.
Perine averaged 23.6 carries and 161.7 yards per game and 6.83 yards per carry during that finishing stretch as the Sooners turned to their elite running back to carry them to a Big 12 title while solidifying his spot among the nation’s best.
“It’s all about the person,” Westbrook said. “When I first shook hands with him, I knew he was that laid-back type of guy and that’s kind of how his play is on the field. He’s going to relax and do his job until his name is called ... then, at that point, that’s when he’s going to go crazy.”