Green's Tuesday Throwback Report
October 19th, 2010 By Patrick Green
Veteran leadership is often factored into the assessment of a college football team. The club with it is viewed favorably and the team needing it is generally considered a work in progress. Certainly, freshman talent exists each year, but typically the team having to rely upon it, is one considered to be looking ahead.
Above: Ronnie Hillman
Indeed, with youthfulness, winning is more inclined to be a long-term expectation more so than an imminent one. Terms such as inexperienced, rookie-mistake, and growing pains filter through page lines and airwaves freely when it comes to freshmen finding their way among a country of men.
These terms are inherent as they serve to help soften the blow of a string of letdowns, whether it is a losing streak, a late-game defeat, or a series of fallible decision-making. This delicate cushion of delayed gratification isn’t always necessary though.
In fact, several players this season have proven yet again that seniority is not always best attained through time served and that a player is designated in no better way than through his play. What does it matter that they have yet to finish a semester’s worth of college course work?
For instance, Oklahoma is the third-ranked team in the AP poll and the No.1 team according to the first BCS rankings, announced on Sunday. Prior to the BCS nod, the Sooners were already eying No.1, literally, in that of the jersey worn by freshman defensive back Tony Jefferson.
The Californian may be in his first year in Norman but he is already a leader on defense. Jefferson is currently the third leading tackler for Oklahoma with 37 on the season, five of those tackles accounting for losses. As well, the freshman has five passes defensed and one quarterback hurry.
“Improvement all starts at practice,” Jefferson told the Oklahoma Insider earlier this month. “And I think I’m getting coached up with the best coaches out there coaching me up to my full abilities. I think it will show up during the game.”
Jefferson game play is a key reason the Sooners sit unblemished at 6-0. For example, in Oklahoma’s 28-20 victory over Texas, the defensive back notched nine tackles, one shy of the team high. Recognizably, the 5-11, 198-pounder has played at a high level in big games throughout the season. He tallied, for instance, eight tackles in the Sooners’ 27-24 win over Air Force.
And if Oklahoma is to remain unbeaten on Saturday after facing an undefeated Missouri (6-0) team that averages 34 points per game, Jefferson will undoubtedly be essential. And though his emphasis is on keeping opponents out of the end zone, most of this season’s marquee freshmen reside on the offensive side of the ball.
None stand taller this week than Wisconsin’s running back James White. The 5-11, 195-pounder hasn’t drawn considerable buzz throughout the nation because he shares the running duties with a capable John Clay. However, White has proven to be more than just a utility back.
In the Badgers’ monumental upset of then top-ranked Ohio State on Saturday, White was dominant. He carried the ball 17 times for 75 yards and a touchdown and had two receptions for nine yards, helping Wisconsin to a convincing 31-18 victory. White’s 12-yard scoring run was pivotal, as it came after Ohio State had trimmed the Badgers’ margin to just three points midway through the fourth quarter.
“James has continued to impress us really in all situations,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema professed last week. “We put him in first down, second down, third down – he’s been good for us in the return game as well. He’s a kid that’s eager to please.”
Saturday’s output is a reflection of how pleasing White has been all year. On just 80 carries, the freshman has compiled 560 yards rushing, averaging 7 yards per touch. More importantly, the Florida native knows how to find the end zone, as he has nine touchdowns in seven games. He’s a considerable reason the Badgers are ranked 11th in the nation in rushing and currently own the No.10 ranking in the AP poll.
White, though, isn’t the only freshman running back tormenting defenses this season. In fact, he doesn’t even have a monopoly on his conference. Michigan State freshman Le’Veon Bell is performing almost identically to White and his Spartans have a perfect 7-0 record to show for it.
Bell has toted the pigskin just 81 times this season, but the freshman has accumulated some impressive stats. A load at 6-2 and 230 pounds, he averages 6.9 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns thus far. What’s more important is that Bell is achieving this on a team that is ranked seventh in the initial BCS standings.
The only other freshman who chews up more yards per carry than White and Bell is Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez. What’s equally fascinating is that Martinez is a quarterback. Though he underwhelmed last week in a 20-13 loss to Texas, for the season, the freshman has been clutch. He is on pace to pass and rush for more than 1,000 yards.
In guiding the Cornhuskers to a 5-1 mark, Martinez has thrown for 723 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 758 yards and 12 touchdowns, on 9.4 yards per carry. The AP No.14 team will need the California native’s arm and feet to return to form when it faces 17th ranked Oklahoma State this weekend.
Like Nebraska, South Carolina dropped an important conference game when it fell to Kentucky, 31-28, on Saturday in SEC play, just one week after the Gamecocks upended No.1 Alabama. The letdown, though, was to no fault of freshman powerhouse Marcus Lattimore.
The Wildcats could do little with the South Carolina native, as Lattimore ran for 79 yards and two touchdowns and hauled in four passes for 133 yards and a score. Despite the loss, it’s because of Lattimore that South Carolina is still a formidable 4-2 with a No.19 ranking. For the season, the 5-11freshman has done it both in and out of the backfield. He’s rushed for 538 yards with 10 touchdowns and has 214 yards receiving with two visits to the end zone.
Ronnie Hillman may not be part of a Top-25 team, but the freshman sensation certainly impacted the rankings, when his 191-yard rushing outburst and two touchdowns on just 24 carries sealed San Diego State’s 27-25 victory over then-No.23 Air Force on Saturday.
Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun was the least surprised by Hillman’s performance.
“He was everything that we anticipated and even more,” Calhoun acknowledged. “He’s fast. He’s physical. He’s a great talent.”
Falcons defensive back Jon Davis shared his coach’s sentiments, adding that “(Hillman’s) a slippery guy. He’s a good running back. He had a couple of big runs.”
Specifically, the La Habra, California, native had scoring strides of 44 and 65-yards against Air Force. The Aztecs know a little something about standout freshmen backs that break off “big runs” and Hillman is quickly adding his name to the books. Though he hasn’t taken on the aura that Marshall Faulk did in 1991, Tillman already has 785 yards and 10 touchdowns through just six games. Faulk compiled 983 yards in first six contests. And with the fact that Hillman is averaging 6.7 yards per carry, it is arguable that he’ll eclipse 1,200 yards this season.
Behind Hillman, San Diego State is 4-2, with already as many wins as it has had in a season since 2005. Indeed, the Mountain West Conference’s reigning Freshman of the Week has Aztecs fans thinking about attaining its first winning season since 1998, its last year competing in the Western Athletic Conference. Since joining the Mountain West Conference in 1999, San Diego State has failed to notch a winning record.
Based on early accounts, head coach Brady Hoke has reason to believe that will all change with Hillman roaming the backfield. After all, the freshman’s most prolific performance came against undefeated and now 11th-ranked (BCS) Missouri, when he scorched the Tigers for 235 yards and touchdowns of 75 and 93 yards.
Is Hillman the next Faulk? Is Jefferson the next Roy Williams, Martinez the second coming of Eric Crouch, White a reincarnated Ron Dayne, Bell a new version of Lorenzo White, or Lattimore a young George Rogers? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Time will tell.
But what the young studs have proven thus far, without a doubt, is that they are leaders, veteran status not needed.
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