August 28, 2010 10:59:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- For every stud freshman who takes college football by storm, there are five times as many first-year players who won''t see the game field for at least a year.
The process of using a "redshirt" year is common in all sports, as student-athletes are allowed five years to play four. Athletes can use a redshirt season for a variety of reasons and at any year of their eligibility, though in football it''s most commonly used for an injury or in a player''s first year on campus.
In football, where physical development is exponentially vital because of the contact involved in the sport, a freshman has a 50 percent chance of seeing the field. Roster counts at certain positions, injuries to other players, and a player''s ability to transition quickly to a deeper playbook and older athletes factor into a coach''s decision to redshirt a player.
"Is the player ready to play and can he contribute significantly to us this year? If so, we''re going to play him," Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen said. "If a guy isn''t ready, we''re going to try and protect him for later on in his career."
Last season, Mullen took over a program that was short on experienced players in a number of key areas and overhauled its offensive and defensive schemes. With just one recruiting class at the time, Mullen and his coaching staff were forced to decide which freshmen would play without knowing the full capabilities of their inherited players.
Mullen contends he will play freshmen at any position, but that the depth chart is the biggest factor in deciding which players will redshirt.
Loaded at tailback and with a fairly experienced offensive line, MSU redshirted 12 of its 24 signees in ''09. That total put the Bulldogs in the middle of the pack among programs in the Southeastern Conference''s Western Division.
Auburn and Arkansas each redshirted eight players, while the University of Mississippi had 16 and Alabama had 17. LSU topped the division with 21 redshirt players in ''09.
For college coaches, identifying players in the recruiting process who can contribute immediately varies by position and scheme. In some cases, coaches will recruit players they know won''t be able to contribute until two, possibly three years into a career, so long as they show the potential to be a quality player, MSU defensive line coach Chris Wilson said.
"The first thing you look for is ability," Wilson said. "Do they fit your scheme and can they do the things you''ll ask of them? For me, a lot of times, I''m just looking for strength and explosiveness. I''m not so much into the size, which is nice to have, but can they change direction and create knock-back?
"Those are the things that, if a guy shows me that on tape, it''s a great indicator he can contribute at our level."
Wilson said offensive and defensive linemen and quarterbacks are the most difficult positions for first-year players to adjust to. Quarterbacks struggle because of the complexity of the playbook and the added responsibility, while linemen have a learning curve that includes increased strength and fitness.
Getting "beat up by 22-year-old men" is how MSU offensive line coach John Hevesy described a redshirt lineman''s first year in the system. Players who don''t see game action in their redshirt season work with scout team offense and defense during the year.
The idea is to get players used to the physicality and fundamentals of the position before they learn the nuances and challenge for a position. Hevesy used redshirt freshman Gabe Jackson, who is in a starting rotation at guard, as an example of a successful redshirt season.
"This time last fall, (Jackson) knew nothing," Hevesy said. "He could barely breathe, and now he goes through the fall, winter, spring, and summer and he''s knocking on the door to be a starting guard. That''s a decent process. He probably accelerated a little bit more, but that''s the way it should be in a program like this."
As players practice with the team, and in some cases dress out for games, they''re in a constant race to reach weightlifting and agility benchmarks set by strength coach Matt Balis and his staff. Workout plans vary depending on a player''s current level of strength and fitness and position. Some players are aware of the growth needed to compete when they come off their redshirt year.
Redshirt defensive end Johnathan McKenzie, who is a backup to defensive lineman Pernell McPhee, said his redshirt year was crucial in preparing him for spring practice and fall camp because he admitted he wasn''t ready to contribute when he arrived on campus.
"You get faster and stronger, but you also get more comfortable around the game and how the whole system works," said McKenzie, who was a standout at Starkville Academy. "Coach Balis and the whole strength staff do a real good job. I was amazed because my 40 time went down even though I gained 20 pounds. It kind of kept me from just being thrown in the fire last year."