Freshman running backs seize Rose Bowl spotlight
LOS ANGELES (AP) Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston are the obvious stars of the Rose Bowl, two elite quarterbacks with Heisman Trophies and blazing futures.
They'll have something else in common when Oregon meets Florida State on Thursday, though: They'll both spend the afternoon in Pasadena handing off to two running backs who show strong signs of being their schools' next big things.
Oregon's Royce Freeman and Florida State's Dalvin Cook are two of the most talented freshman ball-carriers in the nation, and they both seized prominent roles for national championship contenders in their first year out of high school. The heightened stakes in the 101st Granddaddy of Them All don't appear to concern either back, much to their quarterbacks' excitement.
''I could talk about Dalvin all day long, and they've got a great running back, too,'' Winston said. ''Those are guys who are going to do big things for these schools.''
While Freeman has seemed destined to join the Ducks' long line of star running backs from his first game, Cook seized opportunities created by injuries to take a major role for the Seminoles. Freeman has 1,299 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns, while Cook piled up 905 yards - including 321 in the Seminoles' last two games alone.
Freeman has been a consistent producer in Oregon's vaunted rushing offense, gaining at least 75 yards in all but one game this season. Cook came on ferociously midway through the year, breaking out for four 100-yard games and a slew of key runs.
''It's cool when freshmen can contribute to a team when they get a chance,'' Freeman said. ''I came in with no expectations, but I wanted to contribute any way I can.''
Cook and Freeman even know each other a bit after crossing paths during recruitment and summer camps for the nation's elite players. They'll be even more familiar after they trade carries at the Rose Bowl, which doubles as a College Football Playoff semifinal.
''He's a great running back, man,'' Cook said of Freeman. ''Can't take nothing from that guy. It's going to be a great experience playing against him. I've watched film on him, and you've got to bring him down, because he's a tough running back.''
Cook spoke publicly Monday for just the second time this season, given Florida State's policy barring freshmen from the media. The dreadlocked speedster seemed unconcerned by the pressure of the Rose Bowl or the Seminoles' 29-game winning streak, radiating impressive confidence for a teenager who hadn't even picked a college yet a year ago.
''This is something you always dream of here,'' Cook said. ''I'm still kind of embracing the moment. Last year around this time, I was in high school. I just dreamed of this time, and now it's here.''
Freeman was a record-setting high school star in Imperial, California, a small town near the Mexican border in Southern California, while Cook was one of the nation's top recruits out of powerhouse Miami Central.
Freeman was pursued by Florida State and Florida early in his recruitment process, while Cook chose the Seminoles on New Year's Eve after flirting heavily with both Florida and the Miami Hurricanes.
Freeman had already settled on the Ducks, and he has settled in comfortably in Eugene - although he's still getting used to the rain after growing up in the desert. Everything else seems to come easily to Freeman, but that's only because of the work he puts in at practice.
''I'm just glad I was able to play a role this quick in my career, to get us where we always want to go,'' Freeman said. ''That's the opportunity you hope for.''
Although Freeman and Cook love to electrify fans with big runs, both freshmen said their biggest concern this season has been learning one of the details necessary to play for a national title: pass-blocking.
''In high school, we didn't really have to do a lot of that,'' Cook said. ''You have to pick it up quick.''