Which Freshmen Might Participate?

One of the questions on the minds of many college football fans in these agonizingly long two weeks or so before kickoffs concerns freshman participation. How many freshmen will play? Or the question might be which freshmen have a chance to start. Something along those lines.

At Alabama, it's a little more difficult to make an educated guess, in part because Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban keeps practices closed. (Forget that little rant caused when a young intern reporter made a guess at a first team job based on the 10 or 15 minutes of individual work that Saban allows reporters and photographers to watch. That limited viewing can only trap a reporter.)

Information must come from the coach and from players.

Saban has mentioned several freshmen as doing well. He has also noted that he hopes freshmen will at least contribute on special teams in coverage and return roles, and has been more specific in challenging running backs, linebackers and safeties—men with the desired "body types"—to help with kicking teams. The Bama coach mentioned what a "fantastic" special teams player safety Mark Barron was as a freshman last year.

In various degrees, freshmen have been a big part of college football. Last year Bama used 16 freshmen during the 12-2 season. Two of them—wide receiver Julio Jones, who was SEC Freshman of the Year, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower—were starters. Tailback Mark Ingram was an excellent performer as back-up to Glen Coffee.

Saban knows that expectations are high for freshmen—from fans and from the players themselves. He said, "There's an expectation that they can play because freshmen have played before them. I think there's a little more maturity in freshmen." He pointed out that many of them enter college in the summer right after their high school graduations and get more comfortable socially, get acclimated and a little ahead academically, and have an opportunity to work out and interact with their future teammates. Some take it a step further, graduation at mid-term and taking part in winter off-season and spring practice before their first seasons on campus.

"I think the fact that guys can be here all summer and spend eight to 10 weeks academically, socially, and athletically making some adaptations and adjustments helps their transition, which also can help their chances of playing as freshmen," he said.

There is another aspect to consider, Saban pointed out. "The downside of it is that it becomes everyone's expectation to play as a freshman, which is not realistic," the coach said. "Football is a developmental game, so you're only going to have a guy every now and then who is going to make a significant impact."

There's a proposal that players be allowed to participate in five football seasons. A large number of students (athletes and others) take more than four years to complete college. Saban said such a procedure would make management easier. He noted that sometimes a player gets in a few games early in the season before the coach realizes the player is not ready for college football. By then the player has lost a year of eligibility. With a five-year plan, there would be no harm.

Currently players have five years in which to participate four seasons. The year in which a player does not participate is a redshirt season.

So which Alabama freshmen might participate on offense or defense this season?

A guess now is likely premature. Over two weeks remain until kickoff. Beyond that, sometimes a player looks headed for a redshirt season, then suddenly becomes prominent in the playing rotation late in the year. Such was the case in 2008 with tight end Brad Smelley.

One of the first freshmen mentioned both by players and by Saban is wide receiver Kevin Norwood. Bama quarterback Greg McElroy said Norwood reported for summer workouts with a determination to work hard and learn the playbook. Norwood has been mentioned both by defensive backs and by Saban for his fall camp performance.

On the other side of the ball, McElroy and defensive players have also mentioned the work of cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.

Just being talented enough to play as a freshman is only part of the equation. It is also necessary that the team have a need for the freshman so that he is given an opportunity for playing time.

Saban pointed out that skill positions lend themselves more to freshman participation.

Although quarterback is not a position where a freshman figures into the depth chart—particularly on a championship caliber team—there has been a lot of talk from the Tide camp about the performance of first year quarterback A.J. McCarron.

Jack linebacker Eryk Anders mentioned the potential of freshman Ed Stinson (6-5, 260) at jack.

Many are expecting tailback Trent Richardson to be in the running back rotation, and in the one open practice conducted by Bama tailback Eddie Lacy turned some heads.

Defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore was a late arrival to Tuscaloosa (as was Lacy), but Tide players have mentioned him as being a contender for playing time.

There was a thought that one or two inside linebacker types, Tana Patrick and/or Nico Johnson, might be in contention. Now it seems that Hightower is going to continue at weakside linebacker alongside middle linebacker Rolando McClain, which limits opportunities at those spots for newcomers.

One of the most talked about freshmen is the biggest one, offensive lineman D.J. Fluker (6-7, 350). Last week Saban said he was not so much concerned that Fluker had only a limited background as an offensive lineman as he was with "players" doing the things it takes to be in condition to play.

There are many possibilities, including those not mentioned here. Answers may start to come when Alabama meets Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on September 5.

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