Will Freshmen Help Tide Cause?

Everyone knows that recruiting is the backbone of college athletics. Because of attrition -- graduation and otherwise -- teams must replace lost talent every few years. But a team can't wait a few years to find those replacements, particularly in football. Because of the numbers, football ordinarily does not require immediate help from newcomers, particularly for an extablished program.

Alabama will sign one of the nation's top classes Wednesday when outstanding high school football prospects can put their names on the dotted lines of scholarship papers.

A discussion of freshmen football players frequently includes revisiting the adage generally attributed to Tennessee coaching legend General Robert Neyland. In the days before freshmen eligibility, Neyland reportedly said that for every game a sophomore started, the team would lose one game. That theory has since been adjusted to suggest dire consequences for playing freshmen. But it doesn't wash.

Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban has shown in the past that he has no compunction against playing freshmen. Saban and other successful coaches have long determined that the best players are on the field, regardless of class. Neyland and his contemporaries didn't have to deal with:

(a.) the loss of outstanding players to the NFL draft before the completion of their college careers, or (b.) freshman eligibility

Every analysis of recruiting has determined that the key motivation for prospects is playing time.

From a recruiting standpoint, a team with a lot of openings has an advantage. Usually that team has not been recruiting very well in previous years.

Alabama has been recruiting well, top classes over the past two years. Many schools in that situation could expect a down year in recruiting. It is a testament to the recruiting skills of Saban and his staff (with an assist to Alabama tradition, facilities, etc.) that Bama is poised again to have another exceptional class.

The best may be yet to come. Alabama doesn't really get a big boost from the 2009 national championship. The uptick from that achievement is expected to come in the next class.

Alabama has a lot to sell, beginning with Saban, considered by many to be the nation's best college football coach. A player looking for success need look no further than Tuscaloosa. That player will have the best in coaching, facilities, academic support, etc. He will be a part of famed Crimson Tide tradition. Television? Practically every Alabama game will be on the tube. In short, Bama is one of those places that attracts the very best players.

Nevertheless, good players will choose to go elsewhere, and playing time is a factor.

It's not because newcomers can't play for Alabama. Junior college transfers have been immediate starters the past two years, Terrence Cody at nose tackle, James Carpenter at left tackle. Carpenter took over for Andre Smith, who had been a starter since his freshman year. But offensive line isn't a position where freshmen can be expected to start.

Freshman inside linebacker Nico Johnson started for the 2009 national championship team. He got his start because Dont'a Hightower, who had started at the position as a freshman in 2008, suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas.

Some positions lend themselves to freshmen starters more than others. Wide receiver is a frequent spot for a freshman to start. Julio Jones started as a freshman in 2008 and has been Bama's top receiver the past two years.

Other positions are less likely to have freshmen starters--the aforementioned offensive line and quarterback most notable. Incoming freshman quarterback Phillip Sims has a highlight film as good as any ever assembled, but history says he's not likely to get playing time in 2010.

Factors necessary for a freshman to start include the obvious, that he must be good enough; and also that the team have a need at the position. It's not likely that an incoming freshman at Alabama will earn the starting job at tailback, where the Tide returns Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.

Alabama's lost starters on offense are at left guard, right tackle and tight end. Alabama's committed prospects, who will begin signing scholarship papers Wednesday morning, do not include any likely to win one of those jobs.

There may be some openings on defense, but Alabama's previous recruiting success means tough competition for any newcomers. Alabama must replace both cornerbacks, but Javier Arenas, a three-year starter in the secondary, has said players like B.J. Scott, Dre Kirkpatrick and Phelon Jones will be suitable replacements.

Did that affect Keenan Allen? There are probably other factors that led him to renege on his commitment to the Tide, but one can bet opposing schools were armed with their versions of Alabama's depth chart.

Men like Demarcus Milliner and Johnavon Fulton weren't scared off, though.

Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry will get a look at safety, but they are the type players most likely to get their first action on special teams.

Some schools sign a junior college transfer only if it is believed he can come in and start, such as Cody in 2008 and Carpenter last year. Brandon Lewis is a junior college signee for the defensive line, where all three starters are gone. But just because the starters are gone doesn't mean there aren't good players there. Start with National Championship Game Defensive Most Valuable Player Marcell Dareus.

Alfy Hill, a pass rushing defensive end, comes in with many predicting immediate greatness.

A good bet is that many in this signing class will contribute to the 2010 Crimson Tide. One or more may earn starting jobs, particularly on coverage teams.

In fact, it may be that the best bet for a freshman earning a starting job is Cade Foster, a placekicker.

It wouldn't be a surprise if the majority of the Wednesday signing class is not redshirted next fall. What is almost certain is that the players choosing to play at Alabama will have a chance to play for championships.

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