- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Pat Fitzgerald got a little defensive Tuesday when asked about his newfound willingness to play true freshmen.
"You're talking to a guy that played as a freshman," the Northwestern coach said. "I'm not anti playing freshmen. I look at it from a perspective of being realistic."
Northwestern never has freshmen enroll early, so Fitzgerald and his assistants spend the first 2-3 weeks of preseason camp evaluating the class and projecting who can help them in the coming season. They also consider how freshmen will adjust to the rigors of college, especially the academic component.
"It's deeper than whether or not he can help us in the kicking game or whether or not we sell kids a bag of goods in recruiting and say you're going to play as a freshman," Fitzgerald said. "It's their future."
Few players have made the cut in Fitzgerald's tenure.
Fitzgerald used five true freshmen in 2006, his first season as Northwestern's head coach, but he did so largely out of necessity after Northwestern lost a sizable senior class. Fitzgerald played only two true freshmen in 2007 and two more in 2008 before using three freshmen last fall.
But through the first seven games of 2010, Northwestern already has used five true freshmen: defensive lineman Will Hampton, running back Adonis Smith and receivers Venric Mark, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones.
The early returns are promising.
Lawrence has caught seven passes for 138 yards (19.7-yard average)
Jones recorded a 45-yard touchdown catch on his first play in college
Mark has contributed on returns and in the receiving game, and he gained 29 yards on a run last Saturday against Michigan State, the team's longest rush of the season
Smith, who didn't play until Week 5, provided a jolt to a struggling run game with 44 yards against the Spartans
Hampton has helped with the D-line depth and played in five games
There have been a few hiccups -- Mark fumbled against Minnesota, while Jones drew two offside penalties in the game -- but the potential is pretty obvious. Lawrence and Jones have accounted for three of the team's longest five pass plays this season.
"We thought these guys would contribute," Fitzgerald said, "and they're just working hard and getting better and better."
Fitzgerald admits he can be too conservative about freshmen, but he's not going to change how he handles them.
"Sometimes we're wrong," he said. "Sometimes maybe we look back and say, 'Gosh, I wish I would have played him or I wish I would have put them in.' But I'd rather err on the side of being a year late than a day early."