New scheme may push Peterson into NFL stratosphere

Julian Peterson is ready for liftoff. With a career-halting Achilles tendon tear now behind him, the All-Pro linebacker's engines are rolling, his juices are flowing and he's ready to resume the climb toward stardom in a new defensive scheme tailored to highlight his immense talent and playmaking skills. "Life's been great," Peterson told SFI on Wednesday. "The hard part is over for me. It's all going in the right direction." And for Peterson, that direction is up, up, up.

How high can he go in coach Mike Nolan's new 3-4 defense?

"I believe it could take him to the stratosphere," linebacker Jeff Ulbrich – whose stall is next to Peterson's in the San Francisco locker room – said when Peterson was presented that question Wednesday.

Peterson looked at Ulbrich, smiled, and then couldn't find any reason to dispute the words of his linebacker buddy.

"I think so," Peterson said. "The way the schemes are, we can create a lot of havoc, we can break down a lot of protection, we can have a lot of mismatches. You'll never know what I am going to do. You'll never know if I'm rushing from the outside, inside, dropping in coverage. It's going to be great for us. That's the way we are going to be playing this year, just real aggressive and downhill. We won't be taking no nonsense from anybody."

Peterson will be leading the charge from his left outside linebacker position, the starting point from which the 49ers plan to send him sailing toward opposing offenses at all angles.

When training camp began last Saturday, Peterson complained that he wasn't quite 100 percent yet, that his explosiveness still wasn't quite where it was last year before he suffered his sudden and devastating injury in an October game against Arizona.

After watching Peterson finally slip back into his customary place, linebacker Jamie Winborn – who's starting on the opposite edge from Peterson in the new scheme – scoffed that the two-time Pro Bowler isn't prepared to fire at full force.

"If he's not explosive," Winborn said, "then there are a lot of people in the league who want to be ‘not explosive.'"

Peterson only needed a little time to get warmed up. After five days of training camp, he said he can feel the explosion coming back now.

"Yeah, yeah, I really am," he said. "After the first day or two, I really didn't feel it, I felt like I was running but I really wasn't exploding. The last couple of days I really feel like I'm really starting to get a push off from my toe and from my calf, getting a lot of nice explosiveness and all. It's great."

That will allow Peterson to resume his path toward greatness, a place he was headed before his progress was derailed when he ruptured his left Achilles in San Francisco's fifth game last year.

More than seven months of rehabilitation followed, and Peterson was held out of all San Francisco's spring practices before the 49ers finally unleashed him at the start of camp last week.

Peterson now is the centerpiece of the new scheme the 49ers hope will get their defense going in the right direction after a dismal 2-14 season during which San Francisco allowed 452 points, the most in the NFL.

When he arrived in January, Nolan took one look on film at Peterson and San Francisco's other talent at linebacker and made the switch from the standard 4-3 set the 49ers had used almost exclusively since 1993.

The coach believes the potential of the system could turn Peterson into one of the great linebackers of this NFL era. A 3-4 guru who had stints as a defensive coordinator with four NFL teams before joining the 49ers, Nolan has worked with some of the league's elite linebackers of the past two decades.

He's not shy in placing Peterson among that company before he has even coached him in a game.

"I know the really good ones, the Ray Lewises and the (Lawrence Taylors), and those guys would appreciate (Peterson) being on their own football team," Nolan said. "Those are two way-up-there guys, and they'd recognize him as one of them."

As Peterson puts the injury behind him, the 49ers are making sure not to push him along too quickly. He practices only once a day, spending his afternoons doing rehab work on his left leg and foot to further strengthen his Achilles.

But that is just a precaution. Julian Peterson is back, and he is ready to go as high as a fresh start and new system can take both him and the 49ers.

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