KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Several true freshmen in the Southeastern Conference are getting regular playing time — some out of necessity and some because they’re that good.
But no matter the reason, all are expected to perform like upperclassmen.
“That excuse is gone now,” Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell said referring to the players’ being young. “You’ve got several games under your belts. You’re a veteran now. You’ve got to step up.”
Florida has played 17 true freshmen, which ties Air Force for the most in the nation. Tennessee has fielded 16, followed in the SEC by Auburn’s 15 and Vanderbilt’s 13.
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Seven of the Gators’ freshmen have played in every game this season — mostly on special teams. Florida’s travel roster includes 41 percent true freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
“I’m not a real smart guy, but that’s almost half,” coach Urban Meyer said with a smile. “I didn’t want to know that.”
Even before they put on a collegiate uniform, the SEC’s freshmen were expected to be better than their peers. The 2010 recruiting classes at seven of the SEC’s 12 schools were ranked among the top 25 nationally by Rivals.com and Scout.com.
A few of those players have lived up to expectations.
South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore averaged 89.7 yards rushing per game and an SEC-best 12 points per game before injuring his ankle against Kentucky. Florida’s Trey Burton scored a school-record six touchdowns against Kentucky, and LSU defensive tackle Tyrann Mathieu has 2.5 sacks and has forced three fumbles this season for the sixth-ranked Tigers.
“It’s unusual when freshmen have the impact but (Mathieu) is making plays and he’s having fun and he’s certainly added to our football team, and I’m excited about him being here …,” LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “For a freshman, he’s been very, very productive.”
Dyer contributes at Auburn
Even though quarterback Cam Newton gets most of Auburn’s attention when it comes to running the ball, freshman Mike Dyer has had his fair share of carries. Dyer is averaging 63.3 yards per game helped preserve the No. 5 Tigers’ 17-14 win over Mississippi State with 38 yards rushing on the final drive against the Bulldogs. He’s also fumbled twice in the last three games.
Many freshmen get thrust into major roles out of necessity. The Commodores have played 13 true freshmen compared to just eight seniors, and they’ve had their growing pains with missed blocks, bobbled or dropped catches and botched tackles.
“The biggest thing with freshmen is between their ears,” Caldwell said. “They’re not very mentally tough. Anytime something goes wrong, it’s like the world’s coming to an end, you know, and they can’t put it behind them.”
The Vols have been forced to play more freshmen as injuries hit an already thin roster. Two true freshmen, tackle Ja’Wuan James and guard James Stone, have found themselves in regular starting roles on the offensive line, which has given up 23 sacks in six games.
“I was planning on coming in, getting accustomed to college life with football and school,” said James, one of only a few freshmen who have been allowed to talk to the media. “Still before every game you get the little butterflies. The first one had to be the toughest one, though. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley doesn’t necessarily like having to play so many freshmen, but he finds some comfort in the groundwork that is being laid for the next few seasons as the Vols rebuild.
“I’ve always felt like the best thing for player development is to play,” Dooley said. “While they’re going through some tough times this year, it’s going to make them better sophomores and will make them better juniors. Hopefully that freshman class will be the start of building a deep team.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban has used only eight freshmen this season. He knows some opponents have been targeting starting cornerback DeMarcus Milliner because of his age and inexperience, but Saban has watched the true freshman’s confidence improve with every play he makes. Milliner’s shortcomings aren’t unique to freshmen, either.
“With young players, we really have worked hard to try to be a good perimeter force team and do a good job in leverage and tackling. That’s something we all need to continue to improve on,” Saban said. “Dee has done a good job for a true freshman who is getting a baptism under fire playing against some pretty good players.”
— AP Sports Writers Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla.; Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn.; John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La.; David Brandt in Oxford, Miss.; Will Graves in Lexington, Ky.; Charles Odum in Athens, Ga.; and Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C. contributed to this report.