Every head coach has a slightly different take on the subject. Bama fans will remember that Mike DuBose chose to play his true freshmen--almost, no matter what. That philosophy basically cost athletes like Alonzo Ephraim and Shontua Ray a full season, much to the chagrin of players and fans. (Many fans still consider it a miracle that Wesley Britt and Justin Smiley weren't wasted in mop-up duty during the disastrous 2000 season.)
Facing several years of probation, Dennis Franchione took the opposite approach, going out of his way to redshirt as many players as possible--even including some upperclassmen like Atlas Herrion.
It's one of those questions that defies a single set answer to be applied in every case. Every player is different. Every season a team's needs are different. And of course injuries have a nasty habit of cropping up and shattering even the most logical of plans. But Head Coach Mike Shula seems to favor a more practical approach.
"Being from the NFL, the whole issue is new for me," he said. "Whatever (decisions) we make won't be set in stone, but we've got to decide which guys we'll be getting ready to play and which ones may redshirt. Injuries could play a part. And as the season goes along, we may find a guy that is now ready to play, which may change our minds."
Shula indicated that several tentative decisions have already been made, but fans shouldn't expect any official announcement in that regard. "It's hard to say definitely right now about redshirts," Shula said. "We honestly don't know for sure. Plus, you don't want that to be in your players' minds either."
If a player is ready, and the team needs help at his position, the decision becomes obvious. Greg McLain last season was a perfect example. Much better than expected both physically and mentally, McLain ended up starting at fullback when Franchione's much-ballyhooed experiment with the ‘W' position didn't produce the desired results.
Shula praised Castille as being the true freshman most prepared for the rigors of college football. "Probably more than any of the rest he's handled the transition from high school to college the best," Shula said. "We've worked Tim at fullback, halfback and on special teams."
The son of former Tide great Jeremiah Castille, Tim has obviously gotten good advice on how to approach his true freshman season. "I want to do whatever it takes to help the team," has been his mantra. And early indications are that will translate to playing time at both fullback and on special teams.
At defensive tackle the coaches feel very good about three players, Anthony Bryant, Ahmad Childress and Jeremy Clark. But since a minimum of five athletes are needed to fill out the playing rotation, an opening exists for a true freshman to play.
Shula noted many times during fall camp that Dominic Lee has the potential to become a special player. Strong, aggressive and quick, the true freshman has held his own in one-on-one drills against older players. "Dominic has a good chance to play," Shula said. "Right now I don't know how early during a game that might happen. It could depend on injuries."
Defensive tackles Anthony Bryant, Ahmad Childress and Kyle Tatum have all been nicked up at one time or another during fall camp.
Based on personal talent combined with team need, Le'Ron McClain will be a strong candidate to play this season. The Tide is in desperate need of help at fullback, and McClain was rated among the nation's best as a prep senior. "It's still early, and he's got a lot to learn, but Le'Ron is a guy that you'd like to get in there," Shula said. "But we won't force it if he's not ready."
McClain's problem is that a delay in qualifying kept him from joining fall camp until two weeks in. But the staff is working hard to bring him up to speed on the offense. "If you spot him on the field on special teams, then that means he's probably going to be involved in our game plan on offense," Shula said. "He's not a guy we'd just stick out there to play special teams."
Other true freshmen could play this season, based as much on their value to special teams as anything else. Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer readily admits his fondness for younger players, noting their hunger and anxiousness to get into the game and prove their worth. "We're looking to see which players can help," Ungerer said earlier this week. "From grading the scrimmage film, we need to decide which of the younger guys we're going to bring along and put on special teams. We'll talk and see how everyone else on the staff feels on the subject and go from there."
"We will use several freshmen on our special teams," Shula said.
At linebacker Joe Kines wants to start the season with six athletes, opening the door for some true freshmen. That, combined with Ungerer's opinion, creates a chance for Terrence Jones and Demarcus Waldrop. "Those two young linebackers I like," Ungerer said. Both can really run."
It will be a staff decision, however. For example Ungerer also likes cornerback Eric Gray, but Secondary Coach Chris Ball would frankly prefer to hold him out. "We've got a lot of depth this year," Ball said. "I'd really prefer to redshirt all my guys every year."
At wide receiver, all three newcomers are physically capable of playing. Shula likes what he's seen from Tyrone Prothro, Matt Caddell and Will Roach. But the Tide is top-heavy this year at that position (six seniors play wideout), which makes a redshirt for all three probable. Again, special teams provides a clue. Both Prothro and Caddell possess outstanding potential as return men, but neither is currently being worked in the role.
"There will be a couple of receivers that we'll take a look at," Shula said. "But depth with our older guys will be a factor."
One (technically) true freshman receiver that could play is Scoop McDowell. A former minor-league baseball player, McDowell's maturity (and speed) give him an edge.
Athletes at skill positions--like wide receiver, running back and cornerback--have a better chance to play early. On the other hand, every coach prefers to redshirt as many linemen as possible. "Some of our offensive linemen are probably not ready," Shula said. "So we'll go ahead and make the decision to redshirt."
Chris Capps and Justin Moon both have very good potential, but both also need time in the weight room to prepare for SEC play. Travis West is physically farther ahead, but a lingering injury suffered in high school will almost certainly keep him out as well.
On the defensive line, Wallace Gilberry has had his moments this fall. But Bama is fairly deep at defensive end, so he'll likely redshirt. That prediction would also hold for Keith Saunders and walk-ons Justin Johnson and Rudy Griffin (who must sit out after transferring in from the Citadel).
On offense, minor-league pitcher turned quarterback, Mike Machen, is currently fourth string and a likely redshirt. Walk-on tight end Will Denniston should sit out as well.
Punter Patrick Eades has the look of a player, but 2003 is probably not his year. Jamie Christensen worked at placekicker and at kickoffs during fall camp but finished No. 3 in both competitions.