When the issue of what to expect from freshmen comes up, Alabama Coach Nick Saban has been known to reach back in his memory, both as a player and as a young assistant coach. When he played at Kent State, freshmen were not eligible for competition. At Ohio State – where Saban later served as an assistant coach – Woody Hayes had been the iconic head coach.
Saban reminded reporters at Alabama Media Day Sunday that Hayes once said, “For every sophomore you start, you will lose a game.”
Last year Alabama went 14-1 and won the national championship. The Crimson Tide started one sophomore, offensive tackle Cam Robinson.
Okay, so in the opening game there was also sophomore Rob Foster, but he was a third-year sophomore, and ArDarius Stewart was also a third-year sophomore at wide receiver. There were also two redshirt freshmen in the starting lineup, sophomores academically, in left guard Ross Pierschbacher and corneerback Marlon Humphrey.
Updating the Hayes adage to “for every true freshman,” Alabama replaced Foster in the starting lineup with true freshman Calvin Ridley.
So Alabama started one sophomore – Cam Robinson – and one true freshman – Calvin Ridley. And no one would likely suggest Alabama’s one loss in 2015 was because of either of them.
Saban’s comment came as part of his answer regarding the freshman class that is taking part in Alabama fall camp.
"We're sort of excited about this freshman class,” Saban said. “But again, I don't like to specifically put expectations on these guys. I think a lot of people put expectations on freshmen when they come in because they were five-stars or whatever, four-stars. We say they're going to make an immediate impact, which I think this expectation creates some sort of fear of 'Am I going to be able to accomplish to the expectation that's created?' through no fault of their own but relative to what other people sort of place on them.
“We go back and try to emphasize 'This is all about developing. We want to help you develop to be the best player you can be. Your ability to focus, the maturity that you can sort of learn the importance of the attention to detail and doing things correctly because the competition is a little better, so the importance of doing things correctly is sort of accentuated a little bit.'
"Some guys respond really well to that and develop very quickly and are able to make an impact. Other guys have a more difficult time with it. But in every case we're going to take the player where he is and try to help him develop. I see some guys out there that I think will make a contribution to our team this year. I think we had four guys last year, true freshmen that made really significant impacts on our team, and probably at least another half dozen or more guys that played a lot. I think that the same thing will probably happen here this year.
"But the one thing, and I guess things change pretty rapidly. I remember when I was at Ohio State, this was 35 years ago, something like that. Woody Hayes was not the coach but he had made a statement because in those days freshmen were eligible. When I played, freshmen weren't eligible. I remember a statement he made, 'For every sophomore we start, we'll lose one game.' So in 35 years, that's how much more quickly people have matured so that they can contribute like immediately, and that becomes the expectation. And I really do try to get our players to focus on 'I'm working to be the best player I can be and develop to be the best player three years from now.' Even if you play as a freshman, even if you start as a freshman, that should still be your goal. If you want your future as a football player, which means to some degree to play at the next level, that's when you're really going to get evaluated, so that's what your goal should be. Every day, every play in what you do."
The four true freshmen Saban was referring to on the 2015 team were Ridley, Pierschbacher, nickel back Minkah Fitzpatrick, and tight end Hale Henges.
As for 2016, the freshmen who have those great expectations thrust upon them, at least according to what Bama players say, include defensive back Shyheim Carter, defensive lineman Raekwon Davis, tight end Miller Forristall, and quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Saban also announced that junior walk-on running back Derrick Gore had suffered a sprained knee and would be out “at least two weeks.” Saban said another player would be brought in to replace Gore among the 105 allowed in fall camp before the start of classes at The University.
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Although Gore’s absence would not seem to be catastrophic, running back looked like a possible area of depth concern. Not to add to the expectations for true freshmen, but in a helmets and shoulder pads open practice at Bryant-Denny Stadium Sunday, both freshmen tailback signees – B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs – had their moments.