It used to be said that in college football you win games with your juniors and seniors. That is still true to an extent, but the role of the redshirt freshman has grown exponentially in the past 10-15 years. While many true freshmen find the field for a variety of reasons, an 18-year old kid often is not physically ready to take on the challenges presented at the next level. If a young talent is able to spend a year adapting to college life, academics, and getting his body ready, he can have a greater impact during his second year in the program.
Skill players are sometimes more ready for game action, compared to the big boys who often need time to get bigger, stronger, and let their bodies mature before they are stuck in the trenches when it counts. One needs look no further back than last season to see what the 2015 crop of redshirt frosh were able to contribute to the Husky team.
Greg Gaines, Vita Vea and Jaylen Johnson were all heavily involved in the defensive line rotation, with Gaines earning All Pac-12 honorable mention. Matt James and Jesse Sosebee played in 9 games apiece and had multiple starts along the offensive line, while Kaleb McGary came on very strongly at the end of the season and asserted himself as the UW right tackle of the future. Safety Jojo McIntosh and tight end Drew Sample were also key cogs, playing plenty of meaningful snaps during their redshirt freshman seasons.
The depth on both sides of the ball last year allowed the Huskies to redshirt some very talented players, while injuries to other promising true-freshmen early in the season earned the Dawgs a couple more medical redshirts. With WR Jamon Jones leaving the program (and the school) back in June, the Huskies' redshirt freshman class includes 21 players (by my count; fact checkers always welcome).
When we talk about impact, talent is not the only factor that comes into play; opportunity can be just as important. The perceived weaknesses of the Washington football team are where redshirts will find opportunity, as are the positions vacated by last year's most productive seniors.
The receiving corps falls into both of the above categories. Gone are Jaydon Mickens and Josh Perkins, the Huskies' top two receivers from a year ago. Among the redshirt freshmen, who is ready to have an impact and fill the void left by these two?
WR Quinten Pounds (5'11", 178), WR Andre Baccellia (5'10", 166), TE Michael Neal (6'4", 237)
Pounds and Baccellia are smallish receivers capable of playing in the slot or outside. Baccellia is more the shifty speedster while Pounds is an excellent possession receiver with the ability to make grabs in tight coverage, and is stronger than his size would suggest. Both guys are natural route runners who simply find themselves space in the defense a la the similarly built Gabe Marks from WSU. These two should be able to turn opportunity into impact.
Darrell Daniels is generally expected to step into the Perkins role, but Daniels had a significant role in the 2015 offense. Three tight ends were used heavily in the regular rotation with Perkins, Daniels, and Sample all ‘starting' several games. Neal has great hands and a huge catch radius. He may very well be the other downfield receiving TE option for the Husky offense, slipping behind linebackers and making some of the big plays Perkins was known for.
Opportunity has also been created with the graduation of last season's top outside pass rushers. Linebackers Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney are the two players on defense that Husky fans are still concerned about replacing. The two accounted for 14 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss in 2015. While it won't only be redshirt freshmen being asked to fill the void of their departure, there are three exciting prospects at the linebacker position in this season's redshirt frosh class.
LB Jusstis Warren (6'2", 250), LB D.J. Beavers (6'0", 224), LB Bryce Sterk (6'4", 242)
These are three of the new players I am most excited to see on the field in 2016. Their high school reels are really impressive, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if all three make their presence felt on defense (and special teams without question).
Beavers and Warren played nearly identical roles on their high school teams, usually lining up wide similar to Feeney. They both use speed and bull rush techniques, and make a habit of chasing down ball carriers sideline to sideline. While Warren is a little more explosive and violent in his tackling, Beavers showed great technique even at the high school level, hitting at the waist and under the shoulder pads rather than going high. He grabs fabric and holds on, not just relying on the force of the hit to bring the runner down. So far these two have primarily gotten looks at the inside spots behind Keishawn Bierria, Azeem Victor, and Ben Burr-Kirven, but both guys are swift enough to play outside with Warren being the faster of the two. Littleton only ran a 4.7-4.8 and was very effective outside, so if the coaches decide these guys need to be on the field, their lack of 4.5 speed won't keep them buried in depth behind UW's outstanding inside linebackers.
Sterk is a different player, tall like Feeney and more of a pure outside SAM/Buck type. I don't think I've ever seen a marquee player on tape who emerges unblocked in the backfield as often as Sterk. He packs a wallop when he hits, so maybe Whatcom County players were just tired of getting up dizzy after attempting to block him. Sterk moves well in all directions, particularly laterally, and when he puts it into high-gear can really move. I couldn't find a definitive 40-time for him, but as a high school track star he took sixth at the state tournament in the 300-meter hurdles. At 6'4" and playing at around 230 lbs at Lynden HS, he's what you would call "freakishly fast" for a man his size.
With Trey Adams playing as a true freshman, the Huskies were still able to redshirt three offensive linemen last season. Devin Burleson (6'8", 301) is a former basketball player who is as lean as one can be at 300 lbs. He spent his only year of high school football as a tackle, and will need to add upper body strength. Jared Hilbers (6'7", 282) is a 3-star recruit widely considered the top offensive lineman in the state of Oregon. These two provide even more depth to a young offensive line that returns almost everyone from a season ago. The jewel of the offensive line redshirts is Bellevue's Henry Roberts (6'6", 290). The Army All-America Game participant was rated the nation's 23rd best offensive tackle by Scout and the third best prospect overall in the state of Washington. So far, Roberts has gotten more of a look as a guard than a tackle, failing to crack the two-deep in the spring. He will compete for a starting position this fall, but may still be a year away from making that happen.
Two of this year's redshirt class played early in 2015, only to have injuries end their seasons. Both were granted a medical redshirt season. One is Pounds; the other is cornerback Austin Joyner (5'10", 190) of Marysville-Pilchuck. Joyner, The Seattle Times' Defensive Player of the Year and the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, was rated as a four-star recruit by Scout and 247sports.com. Joyner is an elite athlete with terrific closing speed, sound tackling skills, and is a fierce hitter. Plus, you gotta love a guy who committed to Sark, then teased Wazzu with a verbal, only to have Chris Petersen steal him back.
Perhaps the best of all the redshirt freshman is defensive lineman Benning Potoa'e (6'3", 271). Potoa'e was the most surprising member of last year's class not to play, and the state's top 2015 prospect comes in highly decorated. His raw athletic numbers are mind-blowing for a 270-pound man. He runs a 4.6 40-yard dash and has a 37" vertical leap. Rather than give my analysis of his game, I will borrow from recruiting guru Jamie Uyeyama's breakdown. Uyeyama praises what he calls Potoa'e's "hand violence," referring to the way he swats away blockers' attempts to engage him with their hands. He also touts his combination of raw athleticism and lateral movement, calling Potoa'e one of the best pass rushers from the entire 2015 recruiting class. It will be fun to watch him mesh with the rest of UW's talented defensive linemen and linebackers to see if he can help take the Husky D to yet another level.
Below are the 10 remaining members of the 2015 recruiting class who redshirted. Fitting into a category all his own is LB Myles Rice (6'4", 246), a 3-star from Houston, TX who delayed his enrollment until January of last year which technically makes him a true freshman this season.
Dustin Bush, DB, 5'9", 176
Logan Hurst, RB, 5'10", 186
Josh Rasmussen, WR, 5'11", 188
Kyler Manu, LB, 6'1", 237
A.J. Carty, LS, 6'2", 245
Jared Pulu, DL, 6'4", 260
John Clark, DL, 6'4", 271
Sebastian Valerio, PK, 5'9" 180
Ricky McCoy, DL, 6'2", 302
Jason Scrempos, DL, 6'6", 279
For a look at the incoming freshman class of 2016 as well as some wonderfully colorful language, be sure to check out Gabey Lucas' True Freshmen Camp Preview.