TUSCALOOSA — Less than a week away from facing his alma mater, Alabama head coach Nick Saban admitted he has a hard time remembering everything from his playing days with Kent State.
However, not even the 64-year-old head coach can forget his freshman year. Things might have changed a bit since 1969 when Saban was a freshman, but the difficult transition between high school and college has stood the test of time.
“For most freshmen, me included when I was a freshman, I’ll be the first one to join this group, it’s difficult to make all those adjustments academically, socially and athletically,” Saban said. “And you go out there and play in a game of that magnitude and feel like you’ve got both feet on the ground.”
At Alabama, the initial eye-opening experience typically comes during that dreaded first workout.
“My worst (memory) was the first workout,” said junior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, who enrolled early in 2014. “I thought, ‘Wow, these four years going to be like this, it’s going to be a long four years.”’
This season, Alabama has seen several players make the transition from high school to college ball, playing 13 true freshmen through its first three games. The most notable of those is quarterback Jalen Hurts, who has taken over the starting role, passing for 563 yards with four touchdowns and one interception while rushing for 197 yards and two more scores on the ground.
For the most part, the 6-foot-2, 209-pounder from Channelview, Texas has played well past his age. Last week, Hurts helped Alabama overcome a 21-point deficit to Ole Miss, earning SEC offensive player of the week after passing for 158 yards and adding a team-high 146 on the ground against the Rebels.
“Some guys are unique in their ability to do that,” Saban said. “Jalen is a little bit like that. He’s very focused, nothing affects him, nothing bothers him. Nothing bothered him in the game.”
Hurts’ teammates said the three-touchdown deficit, tied for the largest the Tide has ever overcome, did not affect the young quarterback at all. Even after being blindsided on a play that resulted in a 44-yard fumble return for Ole Miss, Hurts was able to bounce back immediately.
“He was just like, ‘I still got y’all’s back, y’all got mine, let’s keep rolling,’” Junior center Bradley Bozeman said. “He didn’t let it affect him at all. He got back in the game and kept playing.”
Hurts is not the only Tide freshman to excel early on this season. Jonah Williams has started all three games at right tackle, earning SEC freshman of the week honors after Week 1. Running backs B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs have also seen significant playing time, combining for 112 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Trevon Diggs has stepped up on special teams, taking over the Tide’s kick return duties while averaging 23.71 yards per return this season.
Last week featured some new faces as well.
Sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick left the game after taking a knee to the head in the third quarter and was replaced by freshman Shyheim Carter. The freshman finished out the game at Star, recording five tackles.
“He’s making great progress,” Saban said of Carter. “I hope that this game experience will help his confidence and he’ll learn from it and grow.”
Despite the freshman’s success, Saban said the team was limited in what it could call without some of its veteran playmakers off the field. The inexperience almost cost Alabama the game, as Ole Miss was able to score two touchdowns in the span of eight seconds to cut the lead to 48-43.
“We were afraid to call things that we had practiced against empty, not knowing if we could execute it,” Saban said. “So we really played with our hands tied a little bit which almost cost us as the end of the game, allowing them to get back in the game.”
Playing time for true freshmen is nothing new for the Tide. Last year, Alabama had several key freshman contributors, including Fitzpatrick as well as defensive back Ronnie Harrison, defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne and receiver Calvin Ridley.
Of that group, Ridley and Fitzpatrick earned Freshman All-American honors.
Ridley led the Tide in receiving with 89 receptions for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns, while Fitzpatrick had a team-leading 11 pass breakups to go with two sacks, two interceptions returned for touchdowns and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown.
Those players, along with a few more freshmen this season, have made it look easy. However, Alabama players and coaches assure that’s far from the case.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” said Hamilton. “A guy who comes from high school to college, it’s going to be a different environment, different players – everybody better. All of our freshmen have been doing a good job of adjusting.”
Tony Tsoukalas writes for the Anniston Star. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org