Back in the day, a college football coach had a stock answer ready when asked to evaluate his latest recruiting class. He’d say to check back in two or three years, after those players had chances to show what they can do.
There’s no need to wait anymore. This season has shown lots of freshmen are ready, willing and able to play—and often start.
“For us, we’re going to play the best players, the guys who give us the best chance to win, and right now that’s some freshmen,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “So we’re playing a bunch of them.”
The 12th-ranked Bruins and No. 14 Texas A&M each have played 17 true freshmen this season. In fact, 13 are listed among the top 22 players on each team’s depth chart.
An Associated Press analysis of the 72 teams in automatic-qualifying BCS conferences and Notre Dame showed that 359 freshmen were listed as first- or second-stringers on this week’s depth charts, not including special teams. That represented almost 12 percent of 3,212 players.
Of those 359, 72 were starters. No. 8 Stanford was the only program that did not list a freshman on its two-deep.
The rapid emergence of youngsters is no surprise to football people. The consensus, from interviews with high school and college coaches, pointed to several factors.
Strength-and-conditioning training has become more sophisticated and closed the physical gap between freshmen and older players.
There are more opportunities for year-round, football-specific training through camps, seven-on-seven leagues and personal coaches.
The growing emphasis on video study at the high-school level has made players smarter. The up-tempo spread offenses are more common, allowing quarterbacks and receivers to make quick transitions to the college game.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said the reliance on freshmen has naturally increased since the scholarship limit dropped to 85 in 1994. A run of injuries can force a team to go young. But so can a need for talent.
“You don’t necessarily change but you adapt your offense and defense to make it user-friendly for a young player to play,” said Meyer, who noted that the Buckeyes adapt their offense when speedy running back Dontre Wilson enters a game.
Receiver was the offensive position that had the most freshmen on the two-deeps, with 66. There were 84 defensive backs.
Nine of the 22 freshman quarterbacks on the two-deep charts have started. California’s Jared Goff is tied for 10th in the nation at 319 yards passing per game, and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg is 17th at 278.
It’s not just four- and five-star recruits like Goff and Hackenberg who are playing right away. Walk-on Baker Mayfield became the first true freshman to start an opener at quarterback for Texas Tech. Davis Webb, another true freshman who was a three-star, took over for Mayfield after the fifth game. The pair has led the Red Raiders to a 7-0 start and a No. 10 ranking.
Some of the other top rookies: Houston’s John O’Korn leads all freshmen with 14 touchdown passes. Virginia Tech cornerback Brandon Facyson has four interceptions. Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam is averaging almost 10 tackles per game. Joey Bosa has become a force on Ohio State’s defensive line. So has Georgia’s Leonard Floyd.
Webb’s coach at Prosper (Texas) High said he knew Webb had what it took to start at Texas Tech this year. Kent Scott said it didn’t hurt that Webb is the son of a high school assistant coach.
“We only had Davis here one year and you could see it immediately—his presence in the locker room, how he was with those offensive linemen we had and how he led guys in seven-on-seven,” Scott said. “He’d get in that weight room, and he’d squat 500 pounds. He was a working dude.”
The notion of deferring to upperclassmen and sitting out the first year as a redshirt to develop physically and adjust to college life has become passe.
“I didn’t look at the schools I would have to potentially redshirt at,” UCLA freshman defensive lineman Kenny Clark said.
Clark said he looked into the personnel situation at each school he considered, studying the depth chart to see where he would fit in. He knew there would be an opportunity at UCLA because part of Mora’s recruiting strategy last year was to upgrade talent on the defensive line.
Clark and fellow four-star recruit Thomas Duarte, one of a nation-leading five freshmen starting for the Bruins, were part of one of the top recruiting classes in the land. UCLA played 15 freshmen in its opener against Nevada.
“The caliber of athletes we brought in with my class was amazing,” Duarte said. “We’re out here running just as fast as the other guys and being as physical or more physical than the older guys. I knew we’d compete and flourish out here.”