Notre Dame football: Playing freshmen a balancing act

Evan Sharpley
ND Insider

“Diaper Dandies,” as basketball analyst Dick Vitale calls freshman game-changers, have become the norm in college football over the past decade.

With so many Irish freshmen playing prominent roles this season, what benefits and pitfalls result from their time on the field? How does the team dynamic work when a freshman takes the playing time away from an older, or perhaps, more popular player? Ultimately, coaches must ask themselves, “will this move help the team win, and/or will it benefit the student-athlete?”

Priority and purpose are the deciding factors.

It is quite easy to make the decision to play a freshman solely on his athletic stature and physical qualities, however, coaches must be aware of the potential changes in team dynamics.

In 2007, coach Charlie Weis was in charge of selecting a replacement for a then-graduated and well-decorated Brady Quinn. I was one of several quarterbacks on that ballot. The need for a quality player at a position like quarterback is of the utmost importance.

However, a decision to place a young, inexperienced athlete in a starting role must be due to a deficiency of an upperclassman in that critical position.

As unbiased as I can be, I did not feel I was a deficiency.

As Fightin’ Irish history recalls, redshirt freshman Demetrius Jones started game one against Georgia Tech and true freshman Jimmy Clausen started week two against Penn State. The ripple effect, in my eyes and of others on the 2007 team, was very apparent, and midway through the year the best thing for our season was for the season to end.

Of course, our lack of success in 2007 was not predicated on this decision alone, rather it was one piece of a very disfigured puzzle.

Often, college football fans neglect to remember that student-athletes at respective universities across the country are only 18-, 19- and 20-year olds. Maturity, therefore, must be highly considered when playing a freshman.

I had the pain and pleasure to play with Golden Tate. It was quite evident that Golden was a talented and gifted athlete, however, he had a very difficult time learning our offense. This inability limited his time on the field.

To get him on the field, our staff utilized several tactics to help. For example, whenever we were in a two-minute drill or hurry up offense, Golden was the closest receiver to our sideline. This enabled our coaching staff to relay his route.

Also, our staff would gameplan a number of plays specifically for him. As a quarterback, I always wanted the best athletes on the field with me, but more important to me was having someone that I could trust, someone that knew the routes and conversions. Early on, Golden was not that guy.

To his credit, he worked very hard to earn the trust of the quarterbacks. The success he had on the field was due in large part to his dedication to learning the playbook. Because he knew what he was supposed to do, it allowed him to do what he did best — make plays.

Coaches and teammates must understand that playing a freshman takes a large amount of patience. The final product of playing a younger athlete might not be seen in a single season, but a year down the road when that player develops more and adjusts to the speed of the game.

As a fifth-year senior, when Dayne Crist was being groomed to take over for Jimmy Clausen, I ran the Irish scout team. This meant that I was in charge of trying to embarrass the Irish defense on a daily basis.

It also gave me a front-row seat to Manti Te’o’s freshman year. Many times throughout the year, he played “like a freshman.” This was frustrating to many upperclassmen that had put in several years of hard work and dedication.

The environment within our program during that year was not one of mutual goals, rather of personal gain. Entire teams — upperclassmen and underclassmen — no matter who is getting the playing time, must buy into the success of the team.

Winning programs, facilitated by great coaches, develop the right environment for young players to gain valuable experience and contribute in primary roles.

The entire team, most importantly the upperclassmen, must buy into the success of the program, rather than individual glory.

Brian Kelly has created a mold that allows him to play freshmen and answer “yes” to “does it help the team win, and does it benefit the student-athlete.” The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Go Irish!

In addition to his weekly column, former Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley previews upcoming games each Friday at 7:50 a.m. on WSBT’s JT In The Morning Show (960 AM and 96.1 FM). On Mondays, Sharpley co-hosts WSBT’s Notre Dame Football Final, which airs from 9-10 a.m. He’ll also be an occasional contributor to WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat and Gameday SportsBeat radio programs. He serves as the director of fitness at the Eastlake Athletic Club in Elkhart.

Golden Tate (23) hauls in a reception for a big gain in the second half against Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium Saturday, September 29, 2007, in West Lafayette, IN. (SBT file photo)