No matter how many starters a team returns, as the start of a new season approaches, college football fans are more interested in how many true freshmen will play. And like clockwork, when looking at a select few of the newcomers, the debate ensues: Is a season spent playing mostly on special teams really worth burning a redshirt?
Recent history provides both sides with plenty of ammo when making the cases both for and against playing the kids.
Those favoring a more conservative approach point to Triandos Luke, the former UA wide receiver who played sparingly in 2000. Even after a broken hand force Luke to miss the first four games of a 3-8 season, Alabama head coach at the time, Mike DuBose, made the call to play Luke.
From the other side of the room comes the retort: "What about Bobby Greenwood?" Despite being at a position that was home to solid depth, Greenwood worked his way into the rotation a season ago. And he didn't just fill a spot. Greenwood went on to earn Rivals.com freshman all-america honors in 2005.
If only the answer was as simple as looking at those pocket-sized charts that tell coaches when to go for two points.
Make no mistake about it, if given the choice, there isn't a college coach out there who wouldn't redshirt every freshman who comes into his program. Problem is, you're not just evaluating the individual when making the decision. Sure, if a guy is talented enough to impact the two-deep right away, you play him. More often than not, though, there are other factors in play such as:
*How does a player project academically over the next four or five years? This is can be a tough call because for every kid who drops out after six months there others like Anthony Madison and Le'Ron McClain who excel in the classroom after struggling to meet freshman eligibility standards.
*What are the academic and NFL forecasts for some of the returning players? Fans see a position heavy with juniors and sophomores and figure there's no need to play freshmen. But what if a couple of juniors leave early for the NFL or a sophomore fails to meet the NCAA's progress toward a degree requirements? That hasn't been an issue for Alabama in the last few years, but no program is completely immune from either scenario.
Ultimately, the team's needs -- both long and short term -- are the determining factor in who plays and who redshirts.
In meeting with the media Tuesday, Alabama head coach Mike Shula ran down a list of Crimson Tide true freshmen who are expected to see playing time this fall. Making the cut were offensive tackle Andre Smith, cornerback Marquis Johnson, safeties Justin Woodall and Sam Burnthall, wide receivers Mike McCoy and Earl Alexander and return men Javier Arenas and Terry Grant.
Of the eight players mentioned by Shula, only Smith was thought to be a shoo-in for playing time heading into August. It wasn't a question of if Smith would play in his first year, but when. He provided a resounding answer to that one a few pratices into fall camp, taking over at left tackle prior to the second scrimmage of the preseason.
Here's guessing that evaluating the others wasn't as easy.
With the Tide loaded at cornerback, the chances of a freshman coming in and making a contribution were extremely thin. Apparently, Johnson didn't see it that way. Although he was flagged for pass interference on the play, he showed excellent speed and instincts in breaking up a deep post to wide receiver Keith Brown in the preseason's first scrimmage.
Johnson's status on the depth chart that UA released on Tuesday is impressive, but it's also important to keep in mind that Lionel Mitchell and Chris Rogers will likely play larger roles in the secondary against Hawai'i than will Johnson. Still, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that Johnson is being groomed as the succesor to Ramzee Robinson in 2007.
If not for Tyrone Prothro's injury both Grant and Arenas would have likely redshirted. In fact, Arenas would probably be getting ready for his freshman season at Florida Atlantic if the Tide had a healthy Prothro back deep on punts and kickoffs. Instead, the dynamic duo will be counted on to provide a boost to a return game that suffered A.P last season. As position players alone, Grant and (especially) Arenas would fall into the redshirt category. As return men, they have to play.
As for McCoy and Alexander, both players are still feeling their way through the offense, but each has the physical makeup needed to contribute this season. While they posseses the skill sets of future 50-reception playmakers, are the fifth and sixth slots in the rotation this season worth a year of eligibility? That likely depends on how Shula envisions the pair developing over the first month of the season. If they're making plays by the time UA heads to Gainesville on Sept. 30, there will be no debate. And this may be more about getting McCoy and Alexander ready for 2007 -- when the Tide might need more than two catches per game from both.
Playing two freshmen safeties would seem to be overkill, but Woodall and Burnthall project as first-year contributors for reasons both different and the same. Woodall was on his way to challenging for a starting job at safety before an ankle sprain derailed his chances. He still might make a run at Marcus Carter, but it can be difficult for a player (even one as talented as Woodall) to weave his way through depth chart traffic once the season is underway.
I like the decision to play Burnthall if for no other reason than his affinity for high-speed collisions -- a characteristic that will serve him well on special teams.
All this and I haven't even mentioned Leigh Tiffin, the freshman kicker who might find himself in the spotlight Saturday night. Ideally, Jamie Christenesen aching right leg will allow him to kick this week and Tiffin, perhaps the most talented freshman placekicker to hit campus since Michael Proctor, can preserve his redshirt.
How will it all play out? Making predictions where freshmen are concerned is never an easy proposition. This much I do know: The debate about whether or not Shula and his staff got it right will continue on throughout the season.