Yes, the headline may be a little bit misleading. It is obvious where the game went wrong. Marvin Hall decides to make a return when he had no chance to gain any yardage. He should have opted for a fair catch. That is obvious. He then got nervous (presumptively) and started to get a little bit antsy before the ball arrived. Disaster ensued with his muff.
Freshmen make freshmen mistakes. Hall is a freshman. He made a freshman mistake, a mistake that could have been the spark that set Oregon's path to victory. Now I am not saying that the onus for the loss should be put on Hall's shoulders, or that this game would have turned out much differently had Hall fair caught the punt, but it was just a play that may have been the catalyst.
But what really caused that play? Why is there a freshman returning punts? Yes, he has the speed to take one to the house, but does that physical gift make it imperative to have him be the one to take the ball upon change-of-possession? Shouldn't there be a more experienced player out there? Well, be prepared for a rabbit hole, because I told you the title would be misleading and boy is it.
So let this rabbit hole begin. For player development, the optimal formula for a program is to have most of its players redshirt, while only a few uber-elite players (preferably three-year players) play as true Frosh. Kasen Williams, Shaq Thompson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are examples of true freshmen who should be playing, for obvious reasons.
Redshirting is optimal for multiple reasons. One, it gives a player more physical developmental time. Look at Williams last season compared to this season. He wasn't small by any means his freshman season, but this year he is huge for a wide receiver. That sort of physical development was under a year in the program. Imagine if Shane Brostek had the chance to put on a few pounds of muscle through a year of development.
Another reason for redshirting is familiarity with the scheme and reducing the adjustment to college-speed. The game is obviously much faster than anything the players are used to, so an entire year of practice reps can help to flatten the learning curve quite a bit. Scheme has to be learned, and again, a year in the system helps to teach the "kids" (I can say that now that I am older than the freshmen in college sports) what to do and when to do it. When a player is on the field and only comprehends half of the playbook, it severely handcuffs the playcaller.
The introduction that began three paragraphs into the article is now finished; time to talk about what I really wanted to talk about: why are there so many true freshmen playing and not redshirting?
First, let's list the players who played last season as true freshmen (going by the Seattle Times roster, let me know if I missed or added anybody) in no order whatsoever: Williams, Seferian-Jenkins, Danny Shelton, John Timu, Bishop Sankey, James Sample, two kickers (I don't remember them, are they transfers that flew under the radar?) Kyle McKnight and Mihai Ion, and punter Nate Ryals. Lots of parentheses! That makes six non-special teams specialists who played at true freshmen in the preceding season.
How many of those were players that had to be on the field? Obviously there were Williams and Seferian-Jenkins. James Sample played sparingly. Shelton was a big body in the middle of the line who essentially backed up Alameda Ta'amu. Timu had the ability to make plays, but in my mind made too many mistakes to be considered ready to play as a true freshman. Hindsight is 20/20. Sankey played because of the injury to Deontae Cooper and the lack of depth at running back.That was a need play more than a talent play,and understandable at that.
Was Shelton a player that needed to be on the field? Was Timu a player that needed to be on the field, forcing it with their play? My answer to the latter is a resounding no, but to the former, I am currently on the fence. And on that fence, I am getting splinters in my butt. I need to get off this fence. There was not the need-to-play level talent on Shelton's side, but there was the depth issue. He probably needed to play.
Which players have played as true freshmen this season? Brostek, Erich Wilson, Hall, Jaydon Mickens, Cory Littleton (just this last weekend), Kendyl Taylor, Thompson and Pio Vatuvei to go along with specialists Korey Durkee and Ryan Masel. That makes eight non-specialists, more than last season. The season is not over yet. It has been speculated that Cyler Miles, another freshman, would be the one to take over for Keith Price should Price miss any extended time with an injury, thus burning another redshirt.
Are any of these players the must-play types (aside from Thompson) that force their way onto the field? I would have to say no. Steve Sarkisian tried to sell Mickens as that sort of player early this season, but with the struggles of Keith Price we cannot say that for sure. The stats say nay. He has seven receptions. Not the difference-maker he was made out to be. Hall has one, then he has returned punts and kicks at times this year. Not a must-play freshman. Littleton has supposedly worked his way onto the field due to his performance in practice, but the jury is still out on what sort of impact he will make this season.
There are two true frosh playing at receiver. The graduation of Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar was a load that was supposed to be shouldered by Seferian Jenkins, Williams, Michael Hartvigson, DiAndre Campbell, James Johnson, Cody Bruns and Kevin Smith. Johnson and Smith were both hurt,but Smith should have redshirted as he has made a minimal impact on the field coming back from ACL surgery, where it typically takes about two years to truly be back at full strength.
Yes, I just linked to myself, not to a true study. If you want to find a real study about recovery from ACL injuries you can look yourself (<3 readers). To me, full strength is not when the knee is back to "full strength", but when the person who suffered the injury is comfortable with the knee, and confident in every cut they could make before the accident. There is a difference between a doctor telling somebody they are okay to play, and an athlete being confident in their body. ACL injuries have some of the toughest mental hurdles to jump.
There are some redshirt freshmen, and others, who could have stepped in and played the role of not catching passes: Jamaal Jones and William Chandler. They could have played the same roles as Mickens and Hall, which were not very large of roles. There is still the chance that the talent difference is too great, which we may not ever know.
Why are there 13 true freshmen playing in the past two years? Lack of depth, plain and simple. Sark and his staff are trying to build depth within this program, but still need to put up some victories now. If the freshman are better than the other depth then they deserve to play. Injuries struck hard. Really hard. Every program has to deal with them. Once again I will say that a mark of a successful program, not just a team, is how often they are able to redshirt talented freshmen. Many true freshmen were forced into action for the Huskies just because of the fact that the depth is not there with the University of Washington football program, yet. There is no doubt that the team is better off than the "dark days" but is not to where it could be as of right now.
Well, my conclusion should probably match up with the title. What indirectly caused the "spark," if you will, that snowballed into the blowout that happened Saturday night was the lack of depth. The lack of depth that caused a true freshman to be returning kicks and punts. Having a true freshman returning kicks and punts led to an error of not calling for a fair catch with defenders running down the returner's neck. That error caused a muffed punt. That muffed punt was a turnover which gave Oregon great field position. Oregon capitalized and things never got better from there. And that is where it all went wrong against Oregon. We have come full circle.
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