Decades ago there was a concern about college football teams forced to play sophomores. Today there is no hesitation for college coaches to play not only sophomores, but also true freshmen.
Alabama would seem to be an unlikely college football team to be able to play a lot of freshmen – not because the Crimson Tide doesn’t recruit excellent players, but because Bama does it year after year and stacks up players in all classes. But Alabama also loses a lot of those top players, some to graduation and some to the NFL, including several top juniors each year.
Thus, there is opportunity for a freshman to play. And Bama Coach Nick Saban has said he plays the best player, regardless of class, and his actions speak as loudly as his words. No wonder, then, the Crimson Tide is able to recruit elite prospects.
This year is no exception, and Alabama’s 38-10 victory over Georgia in Athens Saturday provided ample evidence.
There are at least two factors that determine the opportunity for any football player, and particularly for freshmen. First, there must be a need at the position he plays. Two, he must be good enough to be the best candidate.
Bama definitely had some openings going into this season after the 2014 Southeastern Conference championship season. No one was more of a loss than wide split end Amari Cooper, and his exit was made all the more painful by the simultaneous moves to pro football by starters at flanker, DeAndrew White, and slot receiver, Christion Jones.
Enter Calvin Ridley. Ridley, 6-1, 185, from Coconut Creek, Fla., has been a Bama starter at wide receiver in the past two games, and he has been a big play man. Ridley is second to ArDarius Stewart in receptions, but first in receiving yards. The freshman has pulled in 22 passes for 245 yards (11.1 per catch) and two touchdowns. He had a 50-yard reception against Georgia, his long of the season, and also had a 45-yard catch for a touchdown as he led all receivers Saturday with five catches for 120 yards.
Another true freshman who has earned a starting job is Minkah Fitzpatrick, 6-1, 195, from Old Bridge, N.J. He’s playing what Alabama calls the Star position when the Crimson Tide is in nickel defense. Precisely one minute before Ridley’s touchdown reception in the second quarter in Athens, Fitzpatrick put up a touchdown. He went untouched on punt rush, blocked the kick, and then picked up the ball and stepped into the end zone to give Alabama a 17-3 lead. He also had a sack and a nice tackle in kickoff coverage. For the year he has been in on 21 tackles, has three tackles for 18 yards in losses, and has broken up four passes.
Another freshman seeing action in the secondary is safety Ronnie Harrison, 6-3, 218, Tallahassee, Fla. He had an interception against Georgia, which he returned for 29 yards, and has two on the year for 41 yards in returns. He’s also had a blocked punt this year, giving Bama a safety.
Tailback Damien Harris, 5-11, 205, Berea, Ky., moved into the kickoff return position against Georgia and had three runbacks for 61 yards.He also has been Bama’s third tailback and has 28 rushes for 109 yardswith a long run of 41 yards. He’s also remembered for making a long run to make a touchdown-saving tackle.
Also at tailback, Bo Scarbrough, 6-2, 240, Tuscaloosa, has completed a four-game suspension for an NCAA issue (not related to Alabama) and has healed from a spring knee injury and made his first appearance in mop-up duty against Georgia, running twice for five yards.
Daron Payne, 6-2, 315, Birmingham, has been seeing regular action at defensive tackle, particularly in goalline and short yardage situations, and has been in on three tackles and has broken up a pass and had one quarterback pressure.
Alabama has used 10 true freshmen in games this year. In addition to Ridley, Fitzpatrick, Harrison, Harris, Scarbrough, and Payne, they are wide receiver Daylon Charlot of Patterson, La.; offensive tackle Lester Cotton, 6-4, 315, of Tuscaloosa; tight end Hale Hentges, 6-5, 235, of Jefferson City, Mo.; and wide receiver Deionte Thompson, 6-2, 183, of Orange, Texas.
Alabama returns to action at 6 p.m. CDT Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium against Arkansas. ESPN will televise the game.