LSU CB Peterson relishing role as returner

Now that Patrick Peterson is getting his shot to return kicks

and punts for LSU, he’s scoring touchdowns in his sleep.

Recently, Peterson said, he woke from a dream in which he’d

brought back ”two kick returns and a punt return against North

Carolina in the Georgia Dome – all the way.”

That would have been an impossible dream last year, when

Peterson focused primarily on his role as the top cornerback on the

team, covering opponents’ best receivers one-on-one.

This year, coach Les Miles figured Peterson needed the ball

more, so he’ll debut in his newly added role when the Tigers and

North Carolina open their seasons against one other in Atlanta on

Saturday night.

”I can’t wait,” Peterson said. ”I just told my guys, as long

as they (block) their man, do their responsibility, we’ll have fun

out there. I promised them that. I’m not going to break my

promises. I just can’t wait for the real deal to happen so I can

get that kickoff under the lights and see how we’re going to

respond.”

Peterson will now be more exposed to high-speed, head-on

collisions during his returns, elevating his risk of injury.

Last year at Alabama, LSU learned how painful it could be to

lose Peterson, even briefly, from the defensive backfield. When

Peterson went to the sideline with leg cramps, receiver Julio Jones

scored a game-breaking 73-yard touchdown in the Crimson Tide’s

24-15 win.

”You have a great player and you want to give him the

opportunity to have a great football play,” Miles said of his

decision to put Peterson on returns. ”To say getting an

interception is more important than returning a punt for a

touchdown, I don’t know which great play potentially you want to

limit.”

Peterson has already established his reputation as one of the

top pass defenders in college football. Many quarterbacks avoided

throwing his way last season, and when they did, they didn’t have

much success. Peterson had 13 pass breakups and two interceptions,

returning one for a touchdown. He also had what replays appeared to

show was another interception at Alabama, but officials

controversially ruled Peterson out of bounds.

”He’s obviously one of the premier cornerbacks in the entire

country and obviously a gifted athlete that’s got a lot of speed,”

North Carolina coach Butch Davis said. ”He’s got that shut-down

corner mentality that he challenges everybody and he loves to go

against the other team’s best receiver. I think the other aspect

that makes him a little bit unique over a lot of corners that you

see is his size.”

Peterson, a junior who turned 20 in July, said he has put on 10

pounds this year and weighs close to 220.

”But I feel great. I’m faster than last year,” he said, noting

that he recently ran his fastest ever 40-yard dashes, one timed at

4.37 seconds electronically and one at 4.2 seconds with a handheld

stopwatch.

Davis said giving Peterson his chance as a return man ”is

probably a wise and smart move.”

As a kid in south Florida, Peterson revered former Florida State

and NFL star Deion Sanders. Although Peterson was too young to

remember seeing much of Sanders’ career, he scoured the Internet

for Sanders’ highlights, many of them touchdowns on interception or

punt returns, ending with a distinctive end zone dance.

”He had so much fun, coming up with his own celebration,” said

Peterson, who last year memorably rotated his arm like a windmill

as he led the way down field on Chad Jones’ punt return for a score

at Mississippi State.

”I guess that could be my own celebration with the windmill,”

Peterson said. ”Going out there and having fun is the whole key to

playing football.”

Miles, a former Cowboys assistant while Sanders played

cornerback in Dallas, brought up his memories of Sanders’ talent

with the ball while explaining his decision to add kick and punt

returns to Peterson’s plate.

”When Deion lined up back there for punts, he returned some for

touchdowns, so we’re trying as best we can to allow Patrick that

opportunity,” Miles said.

Peterson had one special teams touchdown last year, coming when

he scooped up a blocked field goal at Ole Miss and returned it 53

yards.

He is a good bet to enter the NFL draft next spring, although he

said he would carefully consider his decision with family, and

factor in the chances of an NFL lockout in 2011, before deciding

whether to leave LSU.

In the meantime, he’s not worried about taking an increased

pounding on special teams. If he does as well as he hopes, his

opportunities to touch the ball may decrease as the season wears on

anyway.

”If teams don’t start kicking it away from me by the sixth

game, I haven’t done my job,” Peterson said. ”So that’s my main

goal, to do my job early in the season.”

His first chance is only days way.