Imagine this scenario: You’re among the most coveted high school football recruits in the country, you sign with LSU – a program that prides itself on playing double-digit freshmen every season and is notorious for spitting out blue-chippers in three years, and then, once you get to Baton Rouge, you learn you’ll take a redshirt your first season.
Only it’s not communicated to you that way up front or really in any form at all. It’s more a reality that slowly dawns on you as the season progresses and August turns into November without you stepping between the lines in a non-practice setting.
“Honestly I think everybody takes it as a bad thing at first,” defensive tackle Greg Gilmore told TSD, recalling his experience from last fall.
Gilmore, a five-star prospect from North Carolina in the 2013 class, is part of a trio of players at his position that sat in line a season ago, taking in games from the sidelines while starters Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson played the lion’s share of the minutes and fellow freshman Christian Lacouture was one of two primary platoon players behind them.
But after the initial feelings of hurt and slight embarrassment, Gilmore said there’s a silver lining to be found with a change in viewpoint. It’s a mentality he thinks will help himself, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron as they embark on their redshirt freshman seasons in 2014.
“You’ve got to look at it in a different perspective because it’s not going to change,” explained Gilmore. “You’ve got to look at it as in I’ve got an extra year of school. When you go to an extra year of school, you go to the league with an extra year and your degree. You can get more money.”
LSU’s second-year defensive tackles don’t have to look far to find an example of somebody who knows the waiting game well. Quentin Thomas, a projected starter at defensive tackle, is finally at the front of the line after three long years of playing the apprentice. He took his redshirt season during the Tigers’ magical 2011 campaign, one which featured a number of future pros at his position.
“I came in pretty much knowing because there was [Michael] Brockers and Bennie [Logan] and all those older guys,” Thomas said, looking back on his first season on campus. “And look, it was Brockers first round, Bennie third round. It was a great experience, even though I came in knowing I wasn’t going to play. They kinda told me to get in my playbook and watch those older guys. That’s what got me to where I’m at now.”
According to Thomas, while the process of learning the schemes and developing in the weight room is productive, it does start to form a chip on your shoulder. After all fans and media alike tend to forget about you while the track for other freshmen is accelerated in front of your eyes.
“I love being an underdog. Most guys you hear about are guys that people have counted out,” continued Thomas. “That’s because people counted them out so much it pushed them and became their motivation. I feel like that’s what happened with me and that’s what it’s doing for these younger guys.”
Having accepted his new reality and path, Gilmore recognizes many of the virtues of the situation put forth by Thomas.
“I feel like you get to learn the system, you get to practice better and you get to play harder the next year once you already know the system going in,” Gilmore noted. “I look back on it as a positive for me.”
The other inescapable fact is it’s just downright tough to play and make an impact at defensive tackle fresh from the high school ranks. “It is very hard for a true freshman to come in and play at that position and be a starter,” defensive line coach Brick Haley said in a recent interview. “If a guy’s not (in really good condition) he’s going to be behind. That’s normally the reason why guys don’t start as true freshmen. They do get behind and they have a lot to learn, and it’s a lot on their bodies.”
In the case of Gilmore, that extra time was essential for conditioning and to get his body in a better position to handle the rigors of playing such a physically demanding position.
“This time last year I was about 318 pounds. I’m about 300 now, playing around 303 or so,” Gilmore explained. “I feel way better health-wise, not just football-wise. It was a combination of working out and eating right. You’ve got to have that in your mindset and you’ve got to talk about it and you’ve got to talk it into existence. That’s what we talk about here.”
It comes into focus that there’s usually good reason for a player to take a redshirt, be it depth in front of him, an injury or perhaps he’s simply not ready. Whatever the motivation, Thomas is grateful his route at LSU took a detour and can’t imagine the alternative.
“I don’t think it [my college career] would’ve went the same,” Thomas mused. “I think me knowing the speed of the game would’ve been better, but as far as getting in the playbook and stuff, that kinda would’ve set me back because I’d have been so focused on game plan I wouldn’t have actually been able to get into the playbook.”
That line of thinking has Gilmore excited about his future as well.
“Definitely, it can get the best four (years) out of you,” he concluded. “I know a lot of instances where guys here got redshirted, played a couple of years and then were gone. I think it’s good. I think it’s good to play also. Whatever the situation is it’s all good at LSU.”