October 3, 2010 12:43:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- A freshman spends the first year of his college career away from the game field.
It''s an adjustment many players haven''t had to make since their freshman season in high school, if at all.
Going from prep standout to high-level recruit to an unknown is a shock, but that is just the beginning of a redshirt''s first year on campus.
Adjusting to a college workload, learning the playbook, and participating on the scout team are critical, but a player''s ability to stay in tune with the team without playing is just as important.
The process for a redshirt throughout the week isn''t much different from his teammates. They all lift weights, practice, and attend meetings.
Coaches, though, make an effort to keep redshirts focused on developing their bodies and learning the team''s systems.
"We just try to keep them involved and close to the program," Mississippi State safeties coach Tony Hughes said. "We try to treat them like they were in the regular rotation and playing every week, not make them feel like they''re isolated or away from us."
MSU redshirt freshman guard Gabe Jackson, who has started MSU''s first four gams this season, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of a strong transition year. He lost 17 pounds when he arrived on campus and had to learn the work ethic required to succeed in the Southeastern Conference.
MSU redshirts, depending on position, have different goals and ways to chart progress throughout the season.
The weight room is more structured, as strength coach Matt Balis assigns players into "developmental groups", which are separate from older players.
On the field, there isn''t a defined plan or benchmarks to reach, safety Dennis Thames said.
"They just give us the playbook and we run with it," Thames said.
Some players have more physical hurdles to overcome when they get to campus, but Jackson, a consensus three-star recruit, said his redshirt directives from offensive line coach John Hevesy were simple: Become fundamentally sound to be ready to play in 2010.
"He kept up with me, too, having an eye on me when I''d practice with the defense," Jackson said. "He''d see me slack up, and he''d stay on me telling me I need to play with the same effort all the time, just like I do with him."
Jackson, Thames, and MSU''s other redshirts and walk-ons spend the majority of their practice time as scout team players. The experience gives them the chance to get scrimmage-like repetitions and adjust to the physicality of SEC football.
But as scout team players, Jackson and Thames had to learn the opponent''s plays each week to give the starters the best possible simulation. They also had to keep up with their progress through MSU''s playbook, which is much deeper and detailed than the ones they had in high school.
Jackson admits he was slow to catch on with the playbook, and that his real progress came in the spring.
"As far as hearing the numbers called, I knew what direction the ball was going but didn''t really know what to do or who to block," Jackson said. "That year, I didn''t really get too deep in the playbook."
Despite juggling scout team assignments with typical freshman player responsibilities, Thames believes running with the scout team helps players go through a college game plan each week, even if it means sacrificing progress in MSU''s playbook.
"It helps get the team better and helps get yourself better at the same time," said Thames, who has four tackles and two pass breakups this season. "Scout team helps get you a spot, so that''s how I really looked at it and that''s how everybody should look at it."
But when the week is over and game day rolls around, redshirts come back to reality. At home games, some are dressed and ready for emergency action. Others wear their jersey and warmup pants.
Some travel with the team for road games, which at best is once or twice a year to get used to the team''s routine away from Starkville. For six or seven games a year, redshirts spend road weekends killing time.
"Most of the time, we just get together and watch the game," Jackson said. "We''ll go places or just hang out. We try to keep it fun because it''s quiet and dead around here when everybody''s gone."
A freshman''s progression through his first year all depends on the player, Hughes said.
"The kids that really love football can jump out there right away and never know the difference," Hughes added. "Then they''re kids that love it and have passion for it, but they''re a step slow because of the pace and things like that, so you just keep coaching them and try to bring them up to the pace."