COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Talent trumps experience in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where several true freshmen are gaining on-the-job training during their first year out of high school.
ACC coaches have opted to throw young players into the fray rather than stick them with a redshirt — and the results have been profound.
The phenomenon is especially prevalent at Maryland, where quarterback Perry Hills and wide receiver Stefon Diggs have made significant contributions to the team's radical turnaround in coach Randy Edsall's second season at the school.
Inserted into the starting lineup after veteran C.J. Brown tore a knee ligament in August, Hills has completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,177 yards and eight touchdowns. Diggs, a top-tier recruit out of Good Counsel (Md.) High School, leads the Terps with 21 catches for 453 yards and three scores. He also took a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown in last week's 27-20 win over Virginia.
Edsall started 12 true freshmen in the opener against William & Mary, and seven are currently listed on the depth chart. That includes leading rusher Wes Brown, starting right tackle Mike Madaras and starting safety Anthony Nixon, who had a key interception against Virginia.
"My philosophy has always been you play the best guy regardless of them being a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior," Edsall said. "When I coached in the NFL (as an assistant) with Jacksonville, I started rookies there. To me, the job of the coach is to determine who the best guys are and put those guys on the field."
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher also prescribes to that theory. A kid with talent will play, even if he's 18 and without college football experience.
"We have no problem with that," Fisher said. "Since I've been here I think we've played a large number of true freshmen, 13, 14 maybe 15 in a year. Maybe this year is down just a hair. We usually put them out there and get them going. A lot of that is based on need, too. If you're the best player, go at it. The great ones, you're not going to keep them five years anyway."
FSU true freshman Ronald Darby has displayed big-play potential this season at cornerback. He's played in all seven games and has eight solo tackles, broken up four passes and forced a fumble.
Another freshman defensive back, P.J. Williams, is also getting playing time along with two highly recruited defensive linemen, Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards, Jr.
Miami is getting dividends from true freshman Duke Johnson, who leads the teams with 428 yards rushing and is tied for third with 18 catches. Another first-year player, 6-foot-6 offensive tackle Ereck Flowers, has also contributed.
Virginia Tech running back J.C. Coleman moved into the starting lineup last Saturday and rushed for 183 yards — most ever by a true freshman under head coach Frank Beamer. Coleman scored on runs of 45 yards and 86 yards to help the Hokies beat Duke 41-20.
"I thought he showed speed, showed power a couple times," Beamer said. "It's a learning experience each and every week, and I think he'll get better."
Across the state at Virginia, the Cavaliers also have gotten major contributions from defensive end Eli Harold. He has four tackles for a loss and 1½ sacks.
Asked to assess the benefit of playing true freshmen, Cavaliers coach Mike London said, "The energy of the young players can sustain you."
At Clemson, linebacker-safety Travis Blanks has started four games as a true freshman. He's tied for third on the team with 32 tackles.
"I have a high expectancy out of myself and I expect to do things at a high level," Blanks said. "I'm not surprised that I'm contributing to my team and helping out."
Blanks won't say whether it would have helped him to redshirt.
"The team needs me at the position. I'm playing. I just look at it and take the opportunity and go with it," he said. "I'm not going to sit there and say, 'Oh, if I redshirted, I could've done this.'"
A year ago, true freshman Sammy Watkins shined for the Tigers as a receiver and kick returner.
"I think it's tough for any freshman to come in at the level he came in at and be able to produce at his level," Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "He kind of surprised everybody on the scene. After those first five, six, seven games, everybody knew who Sammy Watkins was, and he (had to) work that much harder to get open."
Edsall has seen his freshman grow with each passing week.
"I do not see the big wide-eyed look in their faces like 'Wow, what is going on?' I think they have started to settle in and know that they are good enough to compete at this level and win at this level," Edsall said. "You see them starting to compete and believe in themselves and start to grasp everything that they need to grasp."
A year ago, the Terrapins were 2-10. Now they're 4-2 overall and 2-0 in the conference, and much of the improvement can be attributed to an injection of youth.
"It's been extremely important," senior tight end Matt Furstenburg said. "The freshmen have come in and stepped up. They've still got a lot to learn, but we've pulled out four games. Hopefully they keep it up in the second half."
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