Pat Fitzgerald always has the same response when asked about how he chooses whether or not a true freshman will be redshirted: "If we think he's ready, he'll play." This season, Fitzgerald has decided to let four of his 15 commits play, doing something that he hasn't done in years past.
Fitz still has his rhetoric about young players, but he's willing to play them more as talent has increased, which is the important part.— Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan) September 29, 2014
That tweet is spot on. Fitzgerald must talk about young players as if they're immature and not ready to play major roles on his football team. Yes, he may actually believe that. Or, more likely, he speaks like that to satisfy the hierarchical nature of his football team with the oldest, most veteran players at the top and the newcomers at the bottom. It's been pretty clear that Pat Fitzgerald is pretty happy with his young players.
In the spring of 2013, Sippin' on Purple's Rodger Sherman wrote about how Northwestern's success in recruiting should push the coaching staff to play more true freshman.
I'm here to report it has.
With Justin Jackson, Solomon Vault, Xavier Washington and Garrett Dickerson, Northwestern has chosen four freshmen to burn their redshirts and their choices could not have been better.
It's clear from the selections that positional circumstance matters just as much to coaches as actual skill progression does.
For example, it makes sense for Northwestern to play Jackson and Vault at tailback due to a lack of depth at the position following Venric Mark's transfer. Washington bolstered a group of defensive ends that lost Tyler Scott and has seen its best player, Dean Lowry, have to move inside on a frequent basis to account for the struggles of the defensive tackles. Garrett Dickerson has allowed Northwestern to use three super backs (Dickerson, Dan Vitale and Jayme Taylor) in multiple roles, making the position even more versatile.
But then there are cases of players like Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike, true freshmen who we heard a lot about during training camp in 2013, but who were also stuck behind entrenched starters and backups and redshirted. Fitzgerald and his staff have been making the right calls and its been paying off. Last week against Wisconsin was an example of both techniques working to perfection with Jackson's 162 rushing yards and Igwebuike's three interceptions.
Frankly, it makes sense that the freshmen Fitzgerald chooses to play would have major roles. If they didn't, it wouldn't make sense to play them. For instance, against Wisconsin, Jackson's 33 carries were 84.6 percent of the running back carriers Saturday.
But not only does playing freshmen help Northwestern on the field this season, it also helps Northwestern on the practice field and in the future. With freshmen now believing that they may have a chance to play right away, and veterans knowing that their incumbent roles are no longer guaranteed it raises the level of intra-squad competition. It also gives potential recruits examples of players who have come in right away and made a major impact.
The move to play more freshmen reflects Fitzgerald's willingness to break away from the traditional and more conservative coaching policies in college football and Northwestern is better for it.