In 2003, A&M head coach Dennis Franchione was going through one of the longest seasons in more than 30 years of coaching. After arriving at A&M in December of 2002, it didn't take long for Franchione to realize that the A&M football program was in much worse condition than he had ever imagined.
Recruiting had tanked under R.C. Slocum in recent years, and A&M football fans are all familiar with the "empty cupboard" that he inherited.
The Aggies stumbled to a 4-8 record—their first losing season in nearly 20 years—and recorded the worst loss in school history with a 77-0 loss at Oklahoma.
It wasn't quite what Aggie fans had in mind when they plucked the turnaround guru from Alabama, and not many knew how to handle it.
Because of those struggles, many were calling for Franchione to pull the redshirts off of several highly regarded freshmen during the season, but he resisted—choosing to plan long term rather than improve the Aggies' record by a game or two in a year that he knew was going to be a down year anyway.
"When we came here, we redshirted all of our class if we could," Franchione said. "I remember when we were struggling, a lot of guys (in the media) asked if I should have been playing them back then and I said ‘it doesn't matter right now.'"
But it matters in 2007, and that decision has paid off for Franchione as he heads into his fifth year A&M on Saturday against Montana State. He's got a slew of players who have developed into the leadership of this year's team that would have otherwise graduated and moved on from Aggieland had he caved into the pressure to play more of this class as true freshmen.
This year's offense is led by a line that is considered one of the best—if not the best—offensive lines in the nation. But had Franchione not redshirted three of them in 2003, that may not be the case.
Seniors Chris Yoder, Corey Clark and Kirk Elder—60 percent of the No. 1 ranked offensive line in the nation this year—were true freshmen in Franchione's first season at A&M. Had they come in to play in 2003, where would that leave the offensive line in 2007?
In addition to the offensive line, Joey Thomas and Chris Alexander were also among the class of true freshmen in 2003 and now they stand to be key components for this year's offense, especially Alexander, who is one of the most underrated players on this year's heralded Aggie offense.
On the other side of the ball, Red Bryant and Chris Harrington were two of the biggest names among freshmen who redshirted in 2003. Entering 2007, the senior duo is considered the two primary leaders on defense and should help the Aggies with a much better pass rush.
Without these impact players, where would the 2007 Aggies be now? I think most of us have a pretty good idea.
And based on their numbers in 2004 as redshirt freshmen—which I think you have to assume are better than the numbers would have been as true freshmen—it's hard to argue that they would have made much of an impact in 2003 as true freshmen.
Chris Alexander - 45 yards and 1 TD on 14 carries in 10 games in 2004.>
Joey Thomas - seven receptions for 87 yards and two TDs.
Red Bryant - 34 tackles in 12 starts in 2004.
Chris Harrington - 14 tackles in 2004, but still only played as a backup.
The trio of Clark, Elder and Yoder might have made an impact of some kind, but would it have made a drastic difference? It's hard to say. But again, it would have cost Franchione the offensive line that will pave the way in 2007.
Perhaps if the four true freshmen that did play in 2003 would have made a bigger impact, you could have made a better argument for burning more redshirts, but they certainly weren't game-changing players, with the possible exception of linebacker Justin Warren.
Earvin Taylor (who returns in 2007 because of a medical redshirt in 2005) caught nine receptions for 106 yards, Melvin Bullitt recorded 13 tackles in eight games and Marques Thornton recorded 11 tackles in 10 games.
Warren did record 32 tackles (4 TFL, 2 QB sacks) in 7 starts and was the first true freshman in A&M history to ever start the season opener at linebacker. But playing Warren wasn't up for debate. The Aggies were desimated at linebacker and he was their only option. But wouldn't it be nice to have him back with Mark Dodge, Misi Tupe, Anthony Lewis and Matt Featherston this year?
Sometimes the right decision isn't always the popular one, and Franchione's decision to redshirt so many players certainly wasn't winning him any approval rating points at the time. But he will have the opportunity to prove that he knew what he was doing in 2003 before long.
"What we've tried to do is build a program that can sustain itself," Franchione said. "Obviously we've had some ups and downs, but we're trying to get to a point to where the downs are seven wins."
With a chance to do something really special in 2007, and a top-10 recruiting class lined up for 2008, Franchione appears to be heading in the right direction.
Fran's plan seems to be working
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