If the armchair coaches of the world got their minute with Les Miles, one of the topics hit would likely be why the headman has tended to choose experience over youth.
A prime example, five-star prospect Russell Shepard was expected to get his fair share of touches in 2009, and behind appearances at quarterback, running back and receiver, the true freshman averaged 6.2 yards a touch.
Unfortunately those touches – 50 in total - came few and far between.
He did not appear in the Seattle opener against Washington or the team’s Tiger Stadium bout with top-ranked Florida.
After he led the team in rushing through the first-half rain against Mississippi State, he didn’t touch the ball again the entire game.
With the incoming freshmen signees just as talented as Shepard’s 2009 class, Miles won’t let the bench stockpile talent without first opening the sideline gates.
“I think the want to play the best player and the want to play that player that you trust will play well is something every coach has, but the want to play the best player certainly overrides any natural bias,” Miles said. “You want to give your team every opportunity to win. I think that these young players here are exceptional and fit any coach's criteria about getting them to the field.
“They've shown very quickly that they're capable, they're physical and they're mature,” he added. “There are some surprises in that freshman class.”
The most impressive group: defensive back.
Anchored by names like cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Brandon Taylor, the group welcomed a crop of incoming freshmen that battled through camp for an invitation to join the team for the opener in Atlanta.
“I think that young secondary is special,” Miles said. “I think some of those safeties and corners deserve to be on the field and frankly may go by some of the veterans."
Eric Reid finds himself in a three-way battle with veteran Jai Eugene and redshirt freshman Craig Loston at free safety, and the Geismar, La. native worked with the first-team in spots throughout fall camp. The same goes for Ronnie Vinson, who is slated as the second-team strong safety behind Taylor.
Reviews have also been positive for New Orleans cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, a newcomer that Miles tabbed as one of the players he’ll keep an eye on come Saturday evening.
“I just think he is one of those very young and talented guys that can step onto the field and play - and play tough,” he said. Fellow 2010 signee Tharold Simon will join Mathieu as backups to Peterson on the right side.
While new names were already set to start alongside senior Kelvin Sheppard at linebacker, an injury to junior Ryan Baker should push a number of young names into action this weekend. According to Miles, Lamin Barrow, Kevin Minter and Luke Muncie are players from the past two signing classes that look to see the field for the first time.
“Lamin is getting better everyday,” Miles said. “He's a guy that learns quickly, and he's a very big, physical linebacker that will fit very comfortably in the kind of game that we'll have to play. Minter at Mike backer is a 230-plus (pounds), very athletic and very physical linebacker and can step in and play there as well.
“Depending on where you put Kelvin Sheppard, there's an opportunity for both of those guys to see a lot of game time.”
Up front, Sam Montgomery, another redshirt freshman, will get the start at right defensive end. While no starter has been named on the opposite side, Junior College transfer Ken Adams and sophomore Chancey Aghayere are the top two names.
“I think our defensive ends that will take the field have really earned spots and have shown the ability to get to the passer, shown greater quickness and shown greater range,” Miles said. “Sam Montgomery, as a redshirt freshman, gave us headaches on offense, and we couldn't wait to get him to the other side of the field. Certainly when the spring hit, it was only a matter of time before he became our starter and currently is that.
“Certain guys have a youthful ability to forgive their mistakes and to go on, and that's healthy, and then there are those very few guys who came in to play very, very dominant football right away and take the natural mindset that this play really counts,” he added. “That was Sam, and I look forward to seeing Sam and for that matter, Kendrick Adams. Both of those guys I think you'll find will make you smile.”
Add another name to the list in defensive tackle Michael Brockers, a must-play on the front line given that redshirt freshman is the lone 300-pounder of the group.
On offense, conversation begins at wide receiver.
While depth was already an issue (the unit was one of the lone to practice with walk-on players during the spring), things took a turn for the worse when Chris Tolliver - the fourth and final scholarship player outside of the 2010 signees - suffered a concussion in the team’s second Tiger Stadium scrimmage.
Welcome to the picture two signees from last February: James Wright and Kadron Boone.
Boone will play in the slot and Wright on the outside, and Miles is confident that his coaches landed a pair of prep standouts that were ready to make the immediate jump to Southeastern Conference football.
“I think at wide receiver we recruited what were two second-team spots, and those guys there are not only good but fit a spot that really gave us some advantages,” he said.
While Miles tabbed the two veteran backs as the lead men in the game plan, he also said to expect other names – from redshirt freshman Michael Ford to true freshman Spencer Ware – to get their touches as well.
“There is some talent there in that young group that frankly we might want to let get on the field and just let them carry the ball and spell some of these veteran backs,” Miles said. “I think you can look forward to seeing a carry or two mixed around.”
In short, as many as 15 names from the past two signing classes could see significant action this weekend for the first time in their college careers.
As for the armchair coordinators, scratch one off the list.