HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The development of freshman football players is an inexact science, Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said. There's hoping and wishing that the youngest members of the roster can contribute immediately, but much of it comes down to putting one's faith in an unknown quantity.
"Some guys come out and their flower blooms just fine," he said. "Other guys need a little more time."
The green thumbs of the Thundering Herd's coaching staff are showing.
As the Herd prepares for its season finale - a Dec. 27 date with ACC foe Maryland in the Military Bowl - it will continue to count on a number of freshman football players that have earned renown for fast starts to their careers.
Five freshman members of Marshall's roster were named to the Conference USA all-freshman team - defensive backs Corey Tindal and A.J. Leggett, linebacker Stefan Houston, defensive end Gary Thompson and offensive guard Michael Selby. They join four players who made last season's all-freshman squad. Plus, Tindal shared C-USA freshman of the year honors with Tulane linebacker Nico Marley, marking the second consecutive year a Herd freshman has at least shared the award.
While Heater said the efficacy of freshman players can be a coin toss, he added that it was imperative that some contribute each season. Marshall's freshman class embraced that challenge. Thompson said he saw the opportunity to help resurrect the Herd's defense if he wasn't bashful about trying.
"When I first came in, I knew all those older guys had spring ball ahead of me," Thompson said, "so I was like, OK, when I come in here, I've got to start asking questions, get the technique and get my fundamentals back to where I know I can get them, so I can see playing time, and I did."
It can be a delicate balance for those freshmen. They want to be proactive in becoming productive members of the team. Yet their increased playing time could mean less playing time, or the loss of a starting job, for a veteran. Freshman strong safety Tiquan Lang leapfrogged D.J. Hunter - a former freshman All-American himself - on the depth chart before the Southern Mississippi game and hasn't relinquished that starting role.
Tindal said his development wasn't about wresting away a starting job from an older player, though he has been Marshall's starting nickel back all season. It was about offering as much as he could as early as he could.
"I just came in with the mindset that I'm going to find my role and play to the best of my ability and it would all fall in place," he said. "I had the mindset that I'd have a role in this defense, regardless of (where I played)."
That freshmen play early isn't just a luxury for college football teams. It's a necessity due to the scholarship and roster limits that each team faces. Long-term projects can't be the norm. That's why coaching staffs try to outdo themselves with each new recruiting class, said Herd recruiting coordinator Todd Hartley. And the key for a staff in outdoing itself is to not just be good recruiters, but also good talent evaluators.
It isn't enough, he said, for coaches to rope in the most coveted recruits. Those recruits must fit the school's system, and Hartley said Marshall's staff has succeeded in figuring that out.
"I'm telling you, this staff came in here, and I told y'all back in February, these guys have done a phenomenal job of evaluating prospects," Hartley said. "I'm not saying they didn't do that in the past, but since I've been in charge, the guys that we've hired have done a phenomenal job of actually going out and watching kids with their eyes and making sure that this kid can play."
While many of Marshall's freshmen have played well so far, the coaches only expect them to improve. And, Heater said, their quick ascension into prominent roles should mean that each of those players have a very high talent ceiling.
"It's outstanding because they're all coming back," he said. "The exciting thing is some of those guys haven't had a winter. They haven't had winter conditioning and spring football, where you hope guys improve significantly. So there's an upside to those guys as well, and that's exciting."