November 24, 2010 4:50:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- When bumps and bruises turn to soreness and injury, and the grind of playing in a physical conference start to catch up to college football players, coaches start to look to their freshmen.
Once new blood, the team''s youngest players have settled in to being a collegiate athlete and have started to make a greater impression in practice.
As logical as it seems to slide one or two of the burgeoning redshirt players in for a few plays to spell starters, coaches have a tough decision on whether to do so.
A team''s record is a factor, as is the amount of injuries to each specific position. Talent level on the active roster also can influence a coach''s decision to negate a previous commitment to redshirt a particular player.
"You''re tempted to, but you also gotta look at development," Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. "Just because they have the potential doesn''t mean they''re ready to step on the field and do it on Saturdays. That''s the thing we always evaluate."
Players'' progress in the weight room and on the field are charted to each rep to help coaches make the best possible decision on lifting a redshirt. The more positives coaches start to see during that process, the greater the temptation grows to get freshmen on the field.
Just ask MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning, who has seen his lone upperclassmen receiver in Leon Berry and top receiving tight end Marcus Green lost for the season because of injuries.
Koenning said Mullen hasn''t given in to his requests to elevate players, using a player''s potential to push for a starting position as the standard.
"Believe me, I''ve asked coach Mullen numerous times," Koenning said. "I''ve walked in his office and asked, ''Can we pull the shirt off of him? Can we do that?'' He''s told me no every time. I''ve been in his office many times before asking, ''Can we get this kid up? I think he can help us.'' He''ll ask, ''Do you think he can start, Les?''"
So far this season, only three freshmen from MSU''s 2010 recruiting class have seen the field. Two -- defensive lineman Corvell Harrison-Gay and linebacker Chris Hughes -- have stepped in to help depth. West Point native Michael Carr has seen a greater role in the Bulldogs'' receiver rotation, which is without a player past freshman or sophomore classification. None of the three players have cracked the starting lineup.
Mullen says it''s unfair to burn a player''s redshirt year so late in the season, though the players'' progress during "Sunday Night Football" -- simulated games for redshirts and scout team players -- creates further conundrum.
On Sundays, players have the chance to run MSU''s offensive and defensive plays instead of their scout team assignments. Coaches hope to accelerate their acclimation to the playbook before the start of spring practice -- a process that can be hampered by a redshirt''s weekly routine.
"It doesn''t mean they''re not good enough or they couldn''t make plays for us; it''s just that right now we''re trying to protect them because they can make a lot bigger plays further down in their career," Mullen said. "And there''s a large number of guys that, starting at spring practice, we''re expecting to compete for starting jobs. They can''t be a blank slate starting at spring practice."
In some instances, waiting a year to challenge for playing time conflicts with a player''s plans of featuring as a true freshman. Some understand the nature of college football and low odds of making an immediate impact in the Southeastern Conference. Others, particularly the higher-rated prospects, will make their college choice based on the likelihood of playing early.
Skill-position players have a better chance of playing early because of the less ground they have to make up in the weight room.
Mullen doesn''t want freshmen who won''t go to work like they''re preparing to play each week.
"I want them to have that attitude and expectation," Mullen said. "We''ll coach them and show them when they get here, but I certainly want players that think they''re good enough to play right away."
Elite high school players will weigh their chances of playing early when they''re being recruited, but it''s very rare a player rubbish the idea when talking to college coaches, Koenning said.
"When they get in here and get in the weight program, most of them realize how far away they are," Koenning added.
MSU redshirt freshman guard Gabe Jackson was realistic in his approach to playing his first year on campus. He needed to lose weight and learn a new offense. And the Bulldogs'' offensive line depth was solid. However, immediate playing time is an issue with most players who are recruited by multiple schools, he said.
Jackson said the main chatter between fellow 2009 signees Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd was about playing time. Cox and Boyd expected to play because of MSU''s need for bodies, where Jackson was hoping to play but expected to redshirt.
"It plays into it a lot because guys are used to playing," Jackson said. "I knew that if would have gone somewhere I could have played my first year, it probably wasn''t the best school to play at. Up here, it''s competition and I felt like if I had to be somewhere I had to work hard to actually start and play, that''s where I want to be."
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