Top recruits better prepared for early playing time than ever before
Quarterback Kyle Allen and wide receiver Speedy Noil enrolled at Texas A&M in January. The pair of five-star recruits just happen to play the positions vacated by recent Aggies stars Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. Coach Kevin Sumlin doesn't promise starting jobs to incoming freshmen, but Allen and Noil will have every opportunity to earn them.
"Their intent is clear," said Sumlin. "In their words, they're going to play [in the 2014 season opener] against South Carolina."
Given the growing youth movement in college football, it's a more than reasonable expectation.
Allen and Noil may not be widely known outside of recruiting circles, but many of the elite prospects who sign with schools on National Signing Day -- along with those already enrolled -- could be plenty familiar by September. Just take a look at last year's class, in which only four of Rivals.com's top-25 recruits redshirted. The 2013 group produced 11 first-year starters, including Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg and standout Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. Three played in last month's BCS National Championship Game: Florida State safety Jalen Ramsey and Auburn defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravious Adams. (See chart at bottom.)
Whether it's a byproduct of the improved preparation of incoming freshmen, or of the enhanced ability of recruiting analysts to evaluate them, there seem to be many more booms than busts among the consensus can't-miss prospects than there were a decade ago. In fact, it doesn't take long to obtain the necessary affirmation.
''That's the way college football is moving," said Mike Farrell, Rivals.com's national recruiting director. "Maybe we used to wait until the [NFL] draft to see how things panned out -- how many of our five-stars are first rounders. But now we start looking at it closer and earlier because all the freshmen are very good and getting on the field."
There are certain positions at which it is more difficult for a true freshman to make an immediate impact. While redshirt freshman quarterbacks (Manziel and Florida State's Jameis Winston) have won the Heisman Trophy in each of the past two seasons, true freshman starters remain rare at major programs. (Penn State's Hackenberg was a notable exception.) Offensive linemen also seem to take more time to develop, but every receiver, defensive back, linebacker and defensive lineman in the top 25 of last year's Rivals.com rankings saw the field in 2013, as did two of three running backs. Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell emerged as the Rebels' top wideout. Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller led the Hokies in interceptions.
Part of that success stems from the fact that players get faster, stronger and more athletic with each passing year -- and five-star prospects are often particularly freakish. That alone may prompt coaches to find ways to get them on the field. But even the most skilled prospects face an adjustment when making the jump from high school to college. Several developments over the past decade have helped to ease that transition.
For one, most top prospects now have plenty of opportunities to square off against similarly talented peers throughout the year. There are the spring and summer combines sponsored by the recruiting sites and/or apparel companies, the postseason Under Armour All-America Game and U.S. Army All-American Bowl (and related combines), and the ever-growing rise of 7-on-7 tournaments. It's football's equivalent of basketball's longstanding AAU camp circuit.
Rivals.com alone sponsors 16 regional and two national camps (one for rising seniors, another for underclassmen). Nike's The Opening attracted more than 160 top prospects to its Oregon headquarters last July. The prestigious Elite 11 quarterback competition -- once a onetime event in Southern California -- has blossomed into a six-month circuit of regional and national combines.
"I think the camps where [prospects] go against top, top competition really helps prepare them quite a bit," said Farrell. "It used to be kids would maybe go to some college camps, when there was one all-star game, go to the Army game. [High] schools are playing more out-of-state schedules, and these all-star games are also better."
It's not just the players who benefit from the proliferation of offseason competitions. Analysts for recruiting websites, whose player rankings are often dismissed by coaches and fans, are far more informed now than they were in the early days of their industry. More accurate evaluations maximize the chance that the blue-chip players followed by recruitniks during the recruiting process will live up to the hype after arriving on campus.
"I remember doing this in the late '90s, it was all about VHS tapes being mailed to you," said Farrell. "Now you can dissect every game [online], see kids multiple times [in person] over the course of their high school careers. I don't think it's any magic formula we've come up with, we just see them so much."
Meanwhile, an incoming freshman's adjustment to college begins months earlier than it did in previous generations. The concept of early enrollees -- players who graduate high school a semester early in order to begin college in January -- was still fairly novel less than a decade ago. In 2005, USA Today, which has been tracking the number annually, reported just 34 such players across all BCS-conference schools. By 2013, that number had soared to a record 162. Tennessee alone welcomed 14 last month.
The early start allows freshmen to join their school's strength and conditioning program at the same time as returning players and to participate in spring practice. Nearly all the other freshmen now arrive by early summer.
The NCAA's Summer Bridge Program, instituted in 2000 to help incoming freshmen adjust academically, allows schools to foot the bill for athletes to take at least six hours of core courses the summer before their freshman seasons. Players can spend eight hours a week working with a program's strength and conditioning staff. Sumlin calls it "one of the biggest changes in college football," citing increased graduation rates (including more players getting their degrees in less than four years) and the impact on player development.
"Back in the day, my dad dropped me off [at college], you put tape on your helmet, come out to practice and you didn't have any idea what was going on," said Sumlin, a former linebacker at Purdue. "Now you know your teammates, you've worked out for two months, so you're in condition."
All of that helps freshmen potentially see game action sooner. And a new rule adopted last October could accelerate the process even more. In response to frustration from coaches over their limited access to players during the summer -- not coincidentally, a period with the most headlines about players getting into legal trouble -- coaches will, for the first time, be allowed to meet with their players for two hours a week. Much of that time will likely be spent on film study and playbook installation.
Of course, there are downsides to the sport's trend toward immediate gratification. As football begins to more closely mirror basketball, a sport in which it's assumed that big-name recruits will play right away, both players and fans are more likely to grow impatient. While football players can't bolt to the pros after one year, a record 98 underclassmen declared for this year's NFL draft. LSU has lost 17 underclassmen to the draft in the past two years alone.
Meanwhile, Farrell points to 2013 Michigan signee Derrick Green as a case study in the perils of outsized expectations. Many Wolverines fans hoped that Green, the nation's top-rated running back last year and a top-10 prospect nationally, would immediately emerge as the sort of All-America-caliber rusher that Michigan has long been lacking. Instead, he saw sporadic action and averaged just 3.3 yards per carry for the Wolverines' woeful offense, with the 5-foot-11 tailback's weight (240 pounds at the start of the season, up from a reported 220 when he signed) becoming a widespread source of criticism.
"He goes to Michigan, they have arguably one of the worst offensive lines in the country," said Farrell. "He doesn't have a great freshman year and the label of 'bust' is already there. That's insane, but that's what people say. Derrick Green could still have a tremendous career at Michigan."
While making the Super Bowl media rounds last week, former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron placed much of the blame for the Crimson Tide's disappointing two-loss season on some of his "entitled" younger teammates not pulling their weight. Certainly, no school recruits more five-star prospects than Alabama.
"That's the kind of thing that ticks me off about recruiting and when these kids come in and they're five-stars and they expect to play right off the bat," McCarron said on The Jim Rome Show. "It's a little entitlement and when they don't play off the bat, they get a little ticked off and they don't want to work."
Recent history suggests that plenty more true freshmen will play this fall, so start learning their names now. The class of 2014 lacks a consensus mega star like recent No. 1 recruits Terrelle Pryor (2008), Jadeveon Clowney ('11) or Dorial Green-Beckham ('12), all of whom helped drive their hype by waiting until Signing Day or later to announce their college destinations. But LSU commit Leonard Fournette, for one, is viewed by some as the best running back prospect since Adrian Petersen. Barring injury, he'll likely play in Week 1 against Wisconsin. The Tide, who lost both starting defensive ends, will likely call on the nation's No. 1 recruit, Da'Shawn Hand. Running back Dalvin Cook could see carries right away for defending national champion Florida State. Ditto for U.S. Army All-American Bowl MVP Joe Mixon at Oklahoma.
Then there's Texas A&M's aforementioned haul, which also includes the nation's No. 2 overall prospect, defensive end Myles Garrett. Sumlin doesn't promise playing time, but he also doesn't make age distinctions in determining who sees the field.
"Experience is relative," Sumlin said. "You can have a junior with the same amount of experience as a freshman. Whether you've been here five days or five years you're going to get the opportunity to compete."
First the freshmen will compete in practice against A&M's upperclassmen. Soon enough, they assume, it will be time for South Carolina.
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