Came across a set of statistics recently in a Florida press release that absolutely stunned me. It’s a list of the programs that are playing the most true freshmen this year, and if you thought it might consist of Florida Atlantic, North Texas and New Mexico, you’d be wrong.
How about Texas, leading the nation with 18? Or Auburn, No. 2 with 17 true freshmen on the field? Tennessee has played 15, Florida State and Ohio State 14, and among those at 13 are Florida, Clemson and Georgia.
In other words, some of the most purebred programs in the nation are leaning heavily on freshmen.
So I did the only logical thing: Called the Dawgfather, Don James, to get his take. James, of course, was a disciple of redshirting freshmen, paving the way for them to spend five years in the Washington program. There were seasons when the Huskies redshirted their entire freshman class.
James points to a couple of dynamics that have pushed freshmen to the fore: Scholarship limits have decreased over the years, trimming squad sizes. (The last NCAA change to that came in the 1994-95 school year, when the 85-scholarship limit arrived. Four years prior, it was 95, and bigger than that in earlier times.)
Then, as he points out, there are the limitations related to Title IX gender-equity requirements. Some squad sizes used to be upwards of 150 players, but because that now would tilt opportunities for males out of whack proportionate to females, rosters tend to be 120 or less.
Smaller squad sizes, and an occasional rash of injuries, means more freshmen playing.
“And kids are a little more prepared to play early,” James said.
James noted a recent UW function at which he sat at a dinner table with Huskies freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
“He’d have played at any time,” James said, “no matter how many tight ends you had.”
Here’s another possible factor: I think Pete Carroll, in his tenure at USC, made it more acceptable to play freshmen. Despite talented teams, he sold recruits on the idea they could come in, play early and possibly even be fully groomed for the NFL by the time they had put in three seasons. (Of course, most of those recruits were dripping with four- and five-star ratings.)
I asked some of the coaches playing the most freshmen what was driving it. Mack Brown of Texas said, “Some (upperclassmen) didn’t pan out the way the way we wanted them to. And in other cases, some of these freshmen are so good they’re ready to play.”
The Longhorns, who struggled to a 5-7 record last year and have two losses in 2011, had some key recruiting misses in previous classes, particularly on the offensive line, but also at defensive tackle, cornerback and wide receiver.
“People better get us now,” Brown said. “These young ones are good, and we’ve got another (solid class) coming in behind ’em.”
Meanwhile, when fall camp began at Florida, the program had only nine scholarship seniors, tying for the third-lowest total in 60 years.
“We don’t have many seniors, and we don’t have many juniors,” said coach Will Muschamp. “Our numbers were down a little when I got here. We do feel good about our freshman class and the guys we’ve got playing.”
Here are the numbers in the Pac-12 in 2011:
Oregon State 10
Wash. State 10
Arizona St. 3