Florida State Seminoles: Kevin Sumlin

Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.
At this time last year, Texas A&M was the epicenter of college football during spring practice. The Aggies' 2013 spring game drew a record crowd. ESPN televised the game, "Johnny Football" was the face of the sport and it helped swing in-state recruiting momentum from the Longhorns.

It would only make sense that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was ready to do it all again this spring.

“No, it’s not for me,” Sumlin said in March. “I’ll be honest with you, you guys know me, that second half [of spring games] goes real quick. I’m ready to get out of there.”

The spring game in many ways goes against the core belief of Sumlin, and really every coach, of using every practice to get better. So the Aggies went without a game this spring, and will do so again in 2015 as Kyle Field's renovations continue.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsOhio State coach Urban Meyer likes the opportunity to get young players, such as redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, some playing time in a spring game.
Spring games are at somewhat of a crossroads in college football. They’re hardly fighting off extinction as 54 FBS programs held games this past weekend. But the watered-down product is giving coaches reason for pause. The argument against holding the spring game is picking up steam, and coaches are questioning the value in using the final spring practice on a half-speed “dog-and-pony show,” as Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship puts it.

A handful of programs aren't holding spring games this year. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy did not plan a spring game, and Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst believed it wasn’t in the program’s best interest to have one, either.

Both Chryst and Gundy have young rosters. Only Utah State returns fewer starters than the Cowboys. Chryst is still trying to put his stamp on a program that has had more head coaches than winning seasons in the last decade, and he is breaking in a new quarterback. To Chryst and Gundy, it did not make sense to waste a practice day for a haphazard game.

“Truly looking at this from the inside of the program and what this group needs, it was, 'What’s the best use of the 15 opportunities we get in the spring,'” Chryst said. “I felt like we didn’t have a group where we’re going to take just one full day and scrimmage. Bottom line is we wanted to make sure we’re maximizing our opportunities.”

Two coaches not questioning a spring game finale are the leaders of programs with some of the best odds to win the first College Football Playoff. Both Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer are in favor of the model most programs still subscribe to: 14 practices, mix in a few scrimmages and hold a game at the end of camp. Fisher and Meyer believe it’s the only time in the spring to get an accurate read on how players react to a fall Saturday game atmosphere.

“What you get is the people in the stadium, you get pressure, you get outside people watching you get the lights on the scoreboard and [the game] matters,” Fisher told ESPN.com last week. “You get a game environment. It might not be the one in the fall, but it’s as close as you’ll ever get out in this practice field. To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.”

However, Meyer acknowledges the issues the modern-day spring game presents. Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller was out with an injury, but Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were healthy scratches. Fisher elected to sit starting running back Karlos Williams, leaving a fullback and a handful of walk-on running backs to carry the spring load Saturday. The sustainability of the spring game could come down to depth, but rosters are thinner with the 85 scholarship limit, and coaches are keeping their proven commodities out of harm’s way.

Fisher To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.

-- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, on the value of spring games
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the lack of numbers at certain positions causes the few available players to “double dip” and play both sides, opening those few healthy players up to injury. The emphasis on preventing and identifying concussions has grown substantially in the last few years, and Blankenship added that “a lot more guys are missing practice today with concussion-related symptoms, and that’s been consistent across the board with other coaches I talk to.”

Meyer said spring games are often a “great opportunity to get scout-team guys a chance to play,” which in itself can be considered an indictment of the spring game’s inherent value.

“One time at Florida we had only five or six offensive linemen and they had to play both ways,” Meyer said, “but the experience of playing in front of [fans], if you want to have a practice but arrange how the receiver has to be the guy, to be in coverage and catch a pass and hear the crowd, that’s real.”

There are only so many programs that consistently draw 30,000 or more fans for a spring game, though. Those other programs don’t have the benefit of putting their players in a game-day atmosphere when only a few thousand fans fill the bleachers.

Blankenship understands he needs to promote his Tulsa program and bring in as many fans as possible. So last year, they tried a new spring game model. Instead of a traditional game of the roster being split, Blankenship operates on only 50 percent of the field and allows fans to sit on the other side of the 50 to get a more intimate view. The game resembles more of a practice as the team works on situations such as red zone and fourth down instead of keeping score.

A piece of him still wants a sound 15th practice, though.

“I do think [the spring game] is worth it from the fan standpoint,” he said, “but the coach in me would like to have another practice.”

[+] EnlargeVirginia Spring Game
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsThese Virginia students received a better-than-front-row view of the Cavaliers' spring game.
Fans and alumni are maybe the most overlooked part of the equation of whether it is realistic to ditch the spring game. Florida State director of marketing Jason Dennard said it would be nearly impossible to change the Seminoles’ spring game model, which begins with downtown events Friday. The school even receives grant dollars from the local economic development council to fortify the weekend lineup.

“It’s a complete home run,” Dennard said. “After what we’ve built, it’d be hard to scale it down. People have come to expect this to be a big deal. It’s an investment into the future of our program.”

While Pittsburgh has struggled to draw fans for its spring games in recent years, Chryst was still cognizant of the program’s fans when he decided to cancel the spring game. So Chryst met with the marketing department at Pitt and helped introduce a football clinic for young players and offensive and defensive breakdowns of the Panthers’ schemes for the Xs-and-Os fan.

“It was different at first and people said, ‘What, no spring game?’ But when Coach Chryst announced the Field Pass, the response was overwhelming,” said Chris Ferris, associate athletic director for external relations at Pitt.

Could that union of a standard 15th practice with an added day of fan interaction be the union that seals the fate of spring games? Maybe.

“I think it is,” Blankenship said. “We’re much closer to that in our part of the country. I think the tradition of the spring game is something we’re all kind of tied to, but we’re all figuring out there’s a better way.”

SEC Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
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The first week of college football is in the books, and it's time to see where we think all 14 SEC teams stack up in our weekly power rankings:

1. Alabama (1-0; LW: 1): OK, Alabama isn't perfect. Contrary to what AJ McCarron said, the offensive line looked ugly for most of the night in Alabama's win over Virginia Tech. It has to get better in a hurry. But when your defense and special teams are clicking like they were on Saturday, who needs offense?

2. South Carolina (1-0; LW: 4): Two players I've been saying to keep an eye on since the spring: Mike Davis and Shaq Roland. Both looked pretty good, especially Davis, in that opening win, and both will be fun to watch this weekend. The defensive front looked great, but can someone please give Jadeveon Clowney some vitamin C and an extra Gatorade?

3. LSU (1-0; LW: 6): Don't sleep on these Tigers. They're undervalued, but were very impressive in their 37-27 victory over a ranked TCU team in their own backyard. The defense still looks fast, and the offense racked up nearly 450 yards behind some explosive plays. The return of running back Jeremy Hill should make this team even better.

4. Texas A&M (1-0; LW: 2): Johnny Manziel looked good when he was actually playing football Saturday. He went through his progressions and didn't think "run" first. But his antics have to stop (just ask Kevin Sumlin), and that defense has to get much, much, MUCH better before Alabama rolls into town in two weeks.

5. Florida (1-0; LW: 5): It doesn't look like the Gators will miss much of a beat defensively after they suffocated Toledo and that uptempo offense. The offense? Well, it did look more polished and the passing game actually moved down the field, but the Gators were very vanilla. Expect that to change against Miami.

6. Georgia (0-1; LW: 3): We knew the defense would struggle against Clemson's high-octane offense, but the Bulldogs looked really bad in the tackling department. This group has to go back to the basics, and that isn't a good thing with physical South Carolina coming to town this weekend. Also, that offensive line has to protect Aaron Murray better because Todd Gurley can't do it all himself on offense.

7. Ole Miss (1-0; LW: 8): The future certainly looks bright in Oxford, Miss., but this program is hoping the present is just as bright. The Rebels kicked off the college football season with an electric, back-and-forth win over Vanderbilt. This offense looks built to go the distance, but depth is still a major concern. Health is key.

8. Vanderbilt (0-1; LW: 7): The Commodores lost a heartbreaker to the Rebels at home, but this team still looks as explosive as it was last year. The defense has some things to clean up, but defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should make sure that happens. Jordan Matthews has star status, but not having Chris Boyd on the other side of him hurts the offense.

9. Auburn (1-0; LW: 9): The Tigers had quite a fun opener. Both the offense and defense were up and down, but it had to be nice for Gus Malzahn to see his running game put up 295 yards on Washington State. The pass defense has some work to do and injuries won't help.

10. Missouri (1-0; LW: 11): The 58-point, 694-yard performance from the Tigers' offense looked more like what people in Columbia, Mo., expected to see more often last year. Granted, it was against Murray State, but that sort of outing will build some confidence within this group. It was good to see James Franklin and Henry Josey on the field and healthy again.

11. Arkansas (1-0; LW: 13): By looking at the box score, you'd think Bobby Petrino's offense was back in Fayetteville, Ark., after the Hogs put up 522 yards on Louisiana-Lafayette. The Hogs could run and pass, and the defense held the Ragin' Cajuns to just 274 yards. The Hogs still have a couple of cupcakes to face before things get interesting at Rutgers.

12. Tennessee (1-0; LW: 12): We really don't know what to take from Tennessee's thumping of a very overmatched Austin Peay team, but the Vols looked to have some real legs in the running game. How long that will last is a mystery, but it was a good start. Things get tougher this weekend when Western Kentucky and Bobby Petrino visit Rocky Top.

13. Mississippi State (0-1; LW: 10): That was a bad offensive performance by the Bulldogs in their 21-3 loss to Oklahoma State. Mississippi State was 2-for-16 on third downs and Tyler Russell threw for only 133 yards against a defense that ranked 113th nationally in pass defense last year. The Bulldogs held the Cowboys to just 146 passing yards, but allowed nearly 286 rushing yards.

14. Kentucky (0-1; LW: 14): That was not the opener Mark Stoops wanted or needed. The Wildcats looked overmatched against Western Kentucky and are still struggling mightily to find playmakers in the passing game. What had to really upset Stoops was that his defensive line, which was supposed to be this team's best unit, didn't get enough pressure up front and allowed the Hilltoppers to rush for more than 200 yards.

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