Youth will be served on defense
Of the 10 freshmen expected to play significant roles in Saturday's opener with UConn, six will line up on defense. Not surprisingly, most are in the defensive backfield.
Redshirt sophomore J.T. Floyd and senior James Rogers will get the call as the starting cornerbacks, with three freshmen … Cullen Christian, Terrence Talbott and Courtney Avery … vying for back-up duty.
"I guess I'm as comfortable as you can be with freshmen [there]," head coach Rich Rodriguez said Monday. "Until you play a game, you really don't know for sure. Thankfully, we have some experience with James Rogers at that position and J.T. Floyd at the other corner.
"Those two guys have played a lot of football. But the young guys have opportunity. They've progressed well in practice. We've tried to put them in pressure situations. I think they'll grow and get better as the season goes along, as they get experience."
Floyd has had a solid camp, while Rogers is holding on to his position with the consistency Rodriguez expects of a veteran. The freshmen are pushing, however, and all have earned their spots.
"We've got young guys that are on the two-deep and are going to play," said Rodriguez. "Are they going to be nervous? I would hope. If they're not, they're probably lying to you or trying to not think about it.
"I'm always nervous. We're nervous too as coaches, because we know they are going to be nervous. The only way to get those nerves out is to play them. The only way to get experience is to play. Once they get out there and get hurt the first time, take a hit the first time, they'll adjust to it.
"Eventually you get into the mode where it's 11-on-11 and everything else is blocked out. Veteran players are able to do that, and some young players have to mature quickly … and then they'll be fine."
The coaches will be rotating more players overall this year … regardless of class … than they have in the past two seasons.
"We have more people that we think are capable. I'm excited about that," said Rodriguez. "It's got the players excited. There has not been a set 11 on offense and a set 11 on defense. There have been a lot of guys rolling in and out, and that's a good thing."
• Freshman defensive end Jibreel Black will initially back up redshirt junior Ryan Van Bergen in the opener.
"He's really had an outstanding camp. You look at all freshmen and say 'geez, I'd like to redshirt all of them,' but you've got to play the best guys you have whether they're freshmen or seniors, and right now Jibreel is good enough to play," said Rodriguez. "He doesn't have any experience and may make a few mistakes, but he's going to play this year as a freshman."
• Sophomore Teric Jones moved from safety to cornerback before heading back to offense last week.
"He asked to move and we needed him to move. There was a practice when Michael Shaw was in class and three of the other guys were all hurt, so Teric Jones and Kelvin Grady took a lot of reps at one back, and Teric showed us enough that hey, he's got a chance," said Rodriguez. "He's still learning. He's only been over there a week.
"We've moved him around too much already, but we're trying to get him settled into a position. He likes it, and I think he will perform better offensively."
• There's a fine line between protecting the young guys in the secondary and letting the defense just play, Rodriguez noted. Having some experience at the corner in Rogers and Floyd … and with safety Jordan Kovacs returning … should help.
"That is one thing we have talked about … how do we limit the pressure on some of the young guys?" said Rodriguez. "Cam Gordon … he's a young guy. We have to do what we have to do defensively to win the game. If somebody is out there, we have to call our defense with it in mind that we have to take as much pressure as we can if one of our young guys, our true freshmen, are out there and have that in mind a little bit.
"The defensive coaches have a plan for that, but we've basically just been running our defense all through camp and they've responded to that very well."