Not content to sit and wait their turns, these freshmen are already making valuable contributions to their teams
The huge, comfy leather couch that sits in the Miami locker room is both a temptation to Hurricanes freshmen and a constant reminder of their lowly place in their team's caste system. Upperclassmen lounge on it, catching a nap or watching the big-screen TV, but the couch is off-limits to the Baby Canes, as they're called. The true freshmen--that is, actual first-year players, not academic sophomores who were redshirted--are warned immediately: Should their rumps ever rest on the sectional, there will be consequences so severe that freshman free safety Kenny Phillips can't even bring himself to divulge them. "Trust me, I don't think you want to know," he says.
Phillips is the daring sort, so it's not surprising that he has risked his well-being by sneaking a sit-down or two when no veterans were in sight. But even if he were caught, it's doubtful that Miami coaches would let the older Hurricanes exact their pound of flesh; the team needs the kid too much for that. Four games into his college career, the 6'2", 200-pound Phillips has not only worked his way into the starting lineup but also become one of the team's leading tacklers, and he has inspired comparisons with former Hurricanes safeties Ed Reed and Sean Taylor, who are now NFL standouts. In No. 9 Miami's second game, Phillips's first as a starter, he made 13 tackles and intercepted a pass in overtime to seal a 36-30 win over Clemson.
None of that is enough to win Phillips a spot on the coveted couch, but it has earned him a place among a distinguished group of freshmen who aren't sitting, watching and learning, but instead are rushing, receiving, tackling and otherwise energizing teams. "It's still a rare case when you find a young man right out of high school who can compete on this level," says Miami coach Larry Coker. "But there do seem to be more of them making a difference than there were even a few years ago." Three of the nation's top 20 rushers are true freshmen: Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton, whose 132.0 yards per game rank fourth; Central Michigan's Ontario Sneed, whose 114.0 average puts him 13th; and Jamaal Charles of Texas, who is 15th with 111.8 (and is eighth in yards per carry, with 8.1).
Running back is the position richest in impact freshmen. Michigan State's Javon Ringer broke the school's freshman rushing record with 194 yards on 13 carries in the Spartans' 61-14 win over Illinois on Sept. 24, and TCU tailback Aaron Brown, who hadn't run the ball once in the Horned Frogs' first two games, broke loose for 163 yards on 17 carries in a 23-20 win over Utah on Sept. 15, which ended the Utes' 18-game winning streak. But youngsters are making their mark at other spots as well, including at wide receiver (Cal's DeSean Jackson), on the defensive line ( Louisville tackle Earl Heyman and Wisconsin end Matthew Shaughnessy) and on the offensive line ( Virginia guard Branden Albert).
However, even such natural talent doesn't elevate the newcomers' status within their teams. Some of Miami's veterans were less than thrilled when Phillips predicted at the beginning of training camp that he would lead the team in interceptions. "I had to calm him down a little bit," says junior safety Brandon Meriweather. "He was thinking he was the man when he really wasn't. He had to understand that as a freshman, he couldn't come in talking trash, that people might take it the wrong way. Now he gets it. He's grown up a lot just in the short time he's been here."
Phillips, the USA Today Defensive Player of the Year last season at Carol City High in Miami, has as much self-confidence as ever, but he's more diplomatic in expressing it. "I don't mean for it to sound like bragging," he says, "but I set goals for myself and I don't mind telling people what those goals are. Leading the team in interceptions is still one of them." Another is to someday be considered superior to Reed and Taylor, two players whose legacy helped draw him to Miami. Phillips fits perfectly into the line of great Miami safeties--he's big, brash, homegrown, athletic and, when he has to be, nasty. "I love to hit guys," he says. "I'd rather make a big hit than get an interception. I had a couple of [big hits] when we played Colorado. The receivers came across the middle, and I got there at the same time the ball did. You could hear the little gasp of air come out of them when I hit them. It was great."
Phillips doesn't rely on instinct and athletic ability alone. He also works overtime in the film room, studying not only with his coaches but also with his teammates and on his own. "He seemed to understand right from the start that he couldn't come in here and succeed purely on ability-there are a lot of guys with lots of ability at this level," says Miami secondary coach Tim Walton. "What's going to set him apart is that he's a physical talent and an intelligent player."
All of which bodes well for Phillips's future, one that looks exceedingly bright. "It's not an easy adjustment, and I still make mistakes," says Phillips, "but I feel like I'm pulling my weight and getting the respect from the older guys. I've earned my spot on this team." But not on the couch. There are some things even the best freshmen still must wait for.