Finally, there are three other sophomores worthy of note: Curtis Enis of Penn State, a redshirt freshman last year, gained 683 yards after starting the first game of the 1995 season at linebacker. Florida's Terry Jackson, who began his college career in the defensive backfield, gained 780 yards after being moved to offense the previous spring—"C'mon, Terry, give it a try," coach Steve Spurrier implored. Rob Konrad at Syracuse, who was a true freshman last year when he averaged 6.9 yards per carry, is a fullback made from the same stuff as former Orangeman Daryl Johnston, now with the Dallas Cowboys. Konrad's importance to Syracuse is suggested simply by his number. "We don't give [number 44, previously worn by Ernie Davis, Jim Brown and Floyd Little] to people with just great potential," coach Paul Pasqualoni says.
Why is there so much precocity now? According to some coaches, it dates back to 1973, when the NCAA made freshmen eligible. "It's perfectly normal," says LSU coach Gerry DiNardo, "that of your freshmen, 15 percent will play and five percent will start. It's always been that way."
Maybe, but it's hard to recall as strong a corps of sophomore running backs. Assuming something's going on, what could be at work here? Ara Parseghian, who used freshmen to help produce a national championship at Notre Dame in 1973 (no traditionalist, he), says look at golf. The PGA Tour was once dominated by two or three players, but now a different name wins every week. "There are so many more athletes, so much more talent," says Parseghian. Leave it to a coach to decide that it's just a numbers game—is this a big country, or what?—but there may be something to his theory. Either this great land is getting better at producing freakish physical specimens who excel at football, or coaches are getting better at knowing where to look.
"I do know," Parseghian continues, "that when I was coaching or looking at personnel [as a broadcaster], I didn't see 300-pound linemen. Now everybody has them. Anybody who wonders about the change in the game ought to go down on the field. They look different when you get up close."
Parseghian isn't surprised that running backs come to the fore earlier than other players. Quarterbacks have a lot to learn, and so, for that matter, do offensive linemen. "All the audibles, all the blocking schemes, it's hard to develop quarterbacks and offensive linemen as freshmen," says Parseghian. "But running backs, it's a lot of reaction. That kind of instinct, hitting holes, is not something we coach."
Surely there have always been these physical geniuses, but they had to wait their turn. The bias against young players was such that the NCAA actually institutionalized it. Such prejudice still exists. Syracuse's Pasqualoni never did start Konrad last year, preferring to ease him into games behind an upperclassman. "We didn't want to put him under any unnecessary pressure," says Pasqualoni.
Also, like Hess, who wanted to get his older players in the game ahead of freshman Manns, most coaches believe loyalty is a concept that works best when it applies to both player and coach. A player who sticks with the program deserves a coach who will stick with him. But nowadays coaches have reason to wonder what their approach should be when athletic directors can't guarantee them long-term employment and players can't guarantee them that they'll stick around for the long term. Maybe it's best to win however you can, whenever you can. Might be a good idea to put the best players on the field, and let it go at that.
That's DiNardo's method, one he learned the merits of long ago as a player at Notre Dame. "Fall of '73, I was a junior, and we're told freshmen would be eligible," he remembers. "I spout off: 'Ain't ever gonna be a freshman that will play here.' Big mouth. Prospect comes in, lines up across from me in practice, and I play him right onto the first team. So I'm thinking, maybe they will play, one or two of them."
If DiNardo had any residual prejudice toward underclassmen, he tamped it down when Faulk showed up in Baton Rouge. Faulk, who's from Carencro, La., was such a hot prospect that he held a press conference, televised throughout Louisiana, to announce his choice of college. After Faulk arrived at LSU, DiNardo, who was in his first year in Baton Rouge, saw that Faulk would make the age issue moot. "He's highly competitive, very mature," DiNardo says. "He's just one of those kids who likes to play. And he's organized. He was a B-minus student, carrying a full load as a true freshman. He's off the charts as far as I'm concerned."
Some 18-year-olds will simply not be denied. Says Campbell, who became the first freshman running back to start at Texas, "You have to understand how bad I wanted to make it, how much I wanted to be successful. I wasn't going to go back to Tyler, Texas, and work in those rose fields."