Young players making big difference
Florida, the voters say, began the season overrated.
Boise State, its critics say, remains overrated.
And two weeks into the season, the one commodity in college football that without question is overrated is experience.
It would be the Year of the Sophomore, were it not for the freshmen. Four of the top nine rushers in the nation are in their first or second year. No matter where you look, there are examples.
Michigan sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson's 502 yards of total offense against Notre Dame propelled him to the forefront of early-season Heisman discussion. The only reason Robinson is a sophomore, coach Rich Rodriguez said, is that he couldn't afford to redshirt Robinson last season.
"For a second-year player, he's doing all right," the coach said.
You think? Robinson's 502 yards against the Irish shattered the record for the most yards by an Irish opponent by 82 yards.
Not only did South Carolina freshman Marcus Lattimore carry the ball 37 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia, he knocked Bulldogs defenders backward. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday that the video showed Lattimore breaking 40 tackles against the Dawgs. Travis Haney, a reporter at the Charleston Post and Courier, counted 121 yards after contact.
"It was kind of like one of those old-timey games," Spurrier said. "You keep running the guy and he keeps making first downs and the clock keeps going."
Alabama sophomore tailback Trent Richardson, who gained 190 yards rushing and receiving against Penn State, is threatening to Wally Pipp the reigning Heisman winner. That would be injured Crimson Tide tailback Mark Ingram, who you may recall became the third consecutive sophomore to win the Heisman.
Nearly a decade after Pete Carroll flung open the doors at USC and proclaimed, "May the best man win," that philosophy reigns across college football. Redshirting is no longer the default position of college coaches.
"There's definitely a growing trend of playing kids a lot younger, and with that, those kids having greater impacts on your program," Texas coach Mack Brown said Tuesday. A dozen first-year Longhorns have played in both of the team's victories, including wide receiver Mike Davis, who caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown Saturday against Wyoming.
Last season, freshmen Dion Lewis of Pittsburgh and Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech finished among the nation's top five rushers. And freshmen aren't excelling only at the skill positions. Three underclassmen finished among the top five tacklers in 2009, including Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. As a freshman, Kuechly made 158 tackles, more than twice as many as any teammate.
Roster rules regarding eligibility haven't changed. Players have been leaving early for the NFL for nearly 30 years. The 85-scholarship rule has been in place for nearly 20 years. But the rules regarding the calendar have. High school football is year-round in many states, from spring practice to summer seven-on-seven competitions. Players are being coached up 12 months a year.
"We used to say, 'Back in the day, we always played football in the yard,'" Rodriguez said. "We did. It wasn't organized."
At Wake Forest, freshman quarterback Tanner Price threw for three touchdowns and ran for a fourth Saturday in the 54-48 defeat of Duke.
"Tanner Price played at the highest level in Texas at Austin Westlake," Demon Deacons coach Jim Grobe said. "They went to the state championship game at the highest level. They lost in overtime. We see the same things with kids from Georgia and Florida.
"When we get linemen lately, a lot of times they come in lifting some of the same numbers as our kids that we've had a couple of years," Grobe said. "If they have spring football, that gives them three spring football practices before he gets to your place, 15-20 practices a year. I think I saw where Tanner played before 45,000 fans in one game. A big crowd is not an issue for him."
Freshmen are more polished when they arrive, and they arrive sooner than ever before.
"The NCAA made the adjustment from high school to college much easier when they allowed freshmen to come to school on scholarship in June," Brown said. "That bridged the gap for the guys to develop from one to the other faster, and in combination with summer conditioning with the team, prepares them to play more readily. More guys are also coming to school in January, for spring practice, and that also makes them more ready to play as freshmen."
What does "more ready" mean? How does that translate onto the field?
"We notice it from a fundamental standpoint," Grobe said. "When we start teaching them stance and start and alignment, it's not a big deal. It's just reinforcing what they've already been taught. That's not every [freshman]. But for those who know, you have a little bit better chance to teach them your scheme if you're not having to teach how to take a pass drop."
The youth revolution came slowly to Wake Forest. Grobe, in his 10th season, has depended on developing talent. That's because the players good enough to come in and start rarely looked at the Demon Deacons. That stance began to soften as Wake Forest won the ACC title in 2006 and played in bowls in three of the past four seasons.
New coaches are more open to playing freshmen, too. Look no further than the Wolverines, where attrition and a marked change in scheme have made it difficult for Rodriguez to return Michigan to the top of the Big Ten.
Rodriguez, now in his third season in Ann Arbor, remains dependent on young players. When the Irish got the ball in the final minute Saturday, trailing 28-24, the Wolverines played with three true freshmen in the secondary.
"My wife said, 'You looked really calm.' I was really very nervous," Rodriguez said. "Thank God he [Irish QB Dayne Crist] threw it out of the end zone [on the final play of the game]. We had a late hit on that drive, really silly. I have to contain myself. They are still freshmen. There are going to be anxious moments."
Today's young players aren't without problems unique to their youth. They still have to adjust to the every-single-day demands of academia. They still must deal with homesickness and learn the boundaries of their new freedoms. Upperclassmen who have paid their dues might not always cotton to newly arrived competition.
Too bad. Grobe, once a redshirter by default, believes the tie goes to the freshman.
"If an older guy is not mentally better, the young guys are going to play for four years," Grobe said. "He's going to get better and better and better. We have to challenge the older players all the time. The older guy being pushed is good. He raises his level. As long as you're fair, and the team realizes you've got a best-players-play mentality, your team is not going to have any problem with it."
The only caveat with the young guys, Rodriguez said, is that "you just don't want to play them before they are ready and have them have a bad experience."
That seems less likely than ever.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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