SALT LAKE CITY — It used to be that true freshmen rarely saw the field in college football, as coaches preferred to go with experienced players and let the youngsters work their way into the lineup as they matured.
That has changed over the years as players come to college more ready than ever to play. That was exhibited prominently in last year’s national championship game where quarterbacks for both teams were true freshmen.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is no exception as he has used several freshmen in the lineup more often in recent years. His philosophy is to play the best player regardless of class. A senior doesn’t get any preference over a freshman.
“That’s become a trend,” Whittingham said of the use of freshmen. “There’s going to be another four, six, eight guys that help us out, just like in years past. The best players, whoever gives us the best chance to win, will play.”
The latest roster shows 34 true freshmen on the Utah team as well as another 14 redshirt freshmen and a dozen transfers from junior colleges or other universities. That’s nearly half of the entire 126-man roster, which includes walk-ons and non-scholarship players, that are new to the Ute program in 2018.
In recent years players such as Marcus Williams, Britain Covey and Jaylon Johnson have all stepped up and made an impact during their freshman seasons for Utah. However, they have been the exception, as most true freshmen work their way up through the special teams ranks in their initial year, if they don’t redshirt.
This year, the most celebrated freshman on the Ute roster is quarterback Jack Tuttle, a four-star recruit from San Marcos, California, who was pursued by many of the top programs in the country. Tuttle isn’t slated to start, as returning starter Tyler Huntley is a solid No. 1, but it’s expected that Tuttle will get some significant snaps this season, particularly with the new NCAA rule that allows players to play in four games as a redshirt without losing eligibility. Another freshman, redshirt Jason Shelley, is battling Tuttle for the backup QB spot.
Generally, skill position players are more likely to play early as opposed to linemen and linebackers, who often need to grow into their positions. That’s also the case at Utah, where as many as four freshmen receivers could see action this year, including true freshmen Solomon Enis from Phoenix and Terrell Perriman from Miami and redshirt freshmen Bronson Boyd and Jaylen Dixon.
Ute receivers coach Guy Holliday agrees that it’s somewhat easier for skill position players to step in and play, but says it’s a bit more difficult at Utah.
“In this offense it’s very complicated, so they’ve really got to master the system and if they can do that, it comes down to playmaking ability,” Holliday said. “It’s always tough when you’re freshmen, you hit that wall, but these guys are fighting so we’ll see where it takes them. They’ll keep improving and we expect them all to play.”
Two freshmen who could see action on the offensive line are Nick Ford, a 315-pounder from San Pedro, California, who redshirted last year and is battling for a starting spot and Braeden E. Daniels, a true freshman from Carrollton, Texas, who has a spot in the two-deep at either guard or tackle.
Other freshmen who are expected to see action this year are Maddie Golden, who has earned the starting long snapper position as a true freshman, redshirt freshman Mika Tafua from Hawaii, who is in a battle for a starting spot at right defensive end, Cole Fotheringham, a tight end from San Clemente, California, who recently returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Devin Brumfield, a running back from Louisiana, who has opened some eyes in camp so far.
Several other newcomers are expected to play significant roles at linebacker, which has been a thin position for the Utes in recent years. While seniors Chase Hansen and Cody Barton hold down the starting spots, BYU transfer Francis Bernard could challenge for playing time after joining the team last week, along with highly recruited JC transfer Bryant Pirtle and redshirt freshman Devin Lloyd.
“It’s a lot better since I’ve been here,” said linebackers coach Justin Ena of the linebacker depth. “It’s still a learning process for those younger guys we have, but I’m fully optimistic they’ll get it. They’re doing a good job.”
While Whittingham expects to be using a half dozen or so newcomers as regulars this season, it might take a couple of games to figure out exactly who will step up.
“Some guys, when the bright lights are on, take another step forward,” he said. “Some guys get a little bit overwhelmed, so we’ll just see how they react.”