It Could Be Tough For WVU’s True Freshmen To Earn Immediate Playing Time This Year
True freshmen have become a more integral part of the rotation for most college football teams in the last decade or so, including at West Virginia.
From 2010 through 2019, the Mountaineers used 51 scholarship true freshmen in game action. Of those, seven still redshirted, either because of injury or the now two-year old NCAA rule allowing those who play four games or less to still redshirt. The other 44, though, did not redshirt as true freshmen, going back to the last year of the Bill Stewart era.
During that decade-long span, WVU signed 176 high school prospects to National Letters of Intent, meaning that 25 percent of all true freshmen who came to West Virginia as scholarship players wound up avoiding a redshirt and seeing action in their initial college seasons.
(Walk-ons, as well as junior college and four-year college transfers, are not part of this equation.)
With those numbers in mind, we turn to the Mountaineers’ 20-member class of 2020. Three of those are juco products, and the other 17 will enter WVU as true freshmen.
Three of those true freshmen (cornerback Jairo Faverus, quarterback Garrett Greene and receiver Reese Smith) enrolled at WVU in January, as did two of the junior college transfers (cornerback Jackie Matthews and defensive lineman Quay Mays), thus leaving the rest to enter West Virginia this summer … or whenever the next session of school begins at WVU.
The jucos are almost certainly ticketed for immediate action this coming season, but the question is how many of the true freshmen will contribute right away. In the past 10 years, West Virginia has not used less than three true freshmen in any one season with the high water mark in that time being six, something it has done in four different years including in 2019.
If you go by that 25-percent mark for true freshmen participation, the Mountaineers would be looking at using five or six true freshmen in 2020.
Obviously, though, this coming season doesn’t appear as if it will be close to normal because of the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 virus.
It wasn’t all that long ago that first-year players typically got their initial taste of college life in August when they arrived on campus and almost immediately began preseason practice.
But times have changed.
A number of freshmen now graduate high school early so they can enroll at college in January, thus allowing them to go through a semester’s worth academics, as well as additional strength and conditioning work, and also spring practice.
Faverus, Greene and Smith did enroll at the start of this year, though their spring practice was halted after just two sessions, as all college athletics were shut down because of the virus. Their opportunity to work with their new teammates in the weight room also stopped in mid-March, and they finished their academic courses online. In addition, they were left to continue strength and conditioning work on their own.
That trio didn’t benefit as much as previous early enrollees, and their classmates will probably have their introduction to college football curtailed as well.
A number of years ago the NCAA began allowing the scholarships for freshmen to begin in the summer of their initial year. Thus instead of arriving on campus in August, they could begin taking classes and working out in June. A vast majority of first-year football players, as long as they academically qualified, now arrive at school early in the summer, giving them an additional month and a half of strength and conditioning work, as well as playbook and film study, before preseason camp kicks off. That’s been a huge benefit and is big reason why so many true freshmen are prepared to participate in games in their rookie seasons.
But again, this isn’t going to be a normal year.
It’s not yet known when Division I football programs will be able to conduct organized team activities (OTAs) that for the first-year players normally could start with the beginning of the first summer school session in June. With WVU already having cancelled all in-person classes in Morgantown for the entire summer, all academic work with continue via the online format, but when football workouts can begin again is still up in the air. Though nothing is certain yet, it appears such on-campus team workouts won’t be allowed until at least July.
The newcomers may not be able to do much, if anything, in terms of organized physical work for the next month or so, but once they graduate from their respective high schools or junior colleges, they can take part in the virtual meetings that WVU’s football program has been holding via video conferencing with the veteran players the past few weeks.
“We got some relief from the NCAA that if guys have proof of graduation, they can start joining our team meetings and position meetings and things like that,” explained West Virginia head coach Neal Brown.
“I think the guys may be even a little bit further ahead from a mental standpoint, because we’re going to spend more time teaching those guys and they’re going to spend more time in meetings than they normally would leading into a season.
“So, mentally I think they are going to be even more prepared, but physically they’re going to miss,” WVU’s second-year head coach admitted. “Normally in the month of June when they first get here, the newcomers will go through about a four-week process where we teach them how to be a college student, how to be a Division I student-athlete and how to lift weights. There is a lot of teaching involved in that. Then in the month of July we try to assimilate them into the normal team group, because in June they mainly stay by themselves and work out by themselves and are kind of on their own as we try to bridge them from high school to college. But then in the month of July, we really start to get them into physical condition and get them ready to compete against an older group of people.”
Players are obviously being encouraged to work out on their own at this time, and WVU has sent them suggested workout plans, but current NCAA rules don’t allow staff members to check up on how that work is going or coach them as they go through the work. Thus coaches just hope the players are doing what they can to stay in shape. That’s true for the newcomers too.
“I think mentally they will be further ahead, but physically, it will depend on what they are doing on their own, and they don’t know what they don’t know,” noted Brown. “They don’t know what it’s like to train as a Division I athlete. They don’t know what it’s like to go against a 21- or-22-year-old guy.
“Physically they aren’t going to be as far along as they would be in a normal setting,” stated Brown. “Everyone is kind of going through that same process.”
If this were a normal year and the coming fall football season were to go off as scheduled – that’s another major question in it is own right – a number of true freshmen would certainly see immediate playing time in 2020. The Mountaineers don’t have as many depth needs now as they did last year – at least at positions where true freshmen can most easily contribute right away – but still a wide receiver like Sam Brown may be too good to keep off the field, a cornerback like David Vincent-Okoli may push his way into the rotation at an inexperienced position, and a defensive end like Sean Martin may provide some badly needed pass rush help.
But the fact that all of those true freshmen will almost certainly not get an early start to their college careers like previous classes will make it more difficult for those rookies to see significant action in their first year.