- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Every year it seems more and more freshmen are playing in college football. It’s no different in the SEC. Top programs like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU have started or played first-year players in critical games this season.
The same holds true for Auburn, which signed the No. 11 recruiting class this past February. Head coach Gus Malzahn has said he’s not afraid to play freshmen right off the bat as long as they’re talented enough.
So what’s the secret behind the freshmen impact in the college football?
“Physically, kids are coming out of programs -- they’ve got better strength programs -- they’re bigger, faster and stronger, naturally,” AU defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “They’re probably coached as good or better than they were, and I just think a lot of them are ready to play at that level, and we’re able to find a role for them to play.
“Some of them don’t have the competitiveness, some of them don’t have the temperament, some of them don’t have the fundaments, but heck, the physical talent -- you can look at some in high school and tell, these guys can play with us.”
Through the first five games, Auburn has already seen a number of freshmen contributions.
Defensive end Carl Lawson earned SEC freshmen of the week honors with his performance against Ole Miss last weekend. The five-star recruit finished with six tackles, including 3.5 for loss and two sacks.
Marcus Davis emerged as the go-to wide receiver when the Tigers trailed Mississippi State in the final minutes. He caught four passes for 38 yards on the game-winning drive and helped Auburn put an end to their SEC losing streak.
In the season opener, it was defensive tackle Montravius Adams who provided a much-needed spark for the defense when he entered the game and sacked the quarterback on his first play.
The Tigers are not yet to the halfway point of the season, but there are still plenty of freshmen waiting for their opportunity. If all goes well Saturday, there’s a strong possibility some of them might receive that chance against Western Carolina.
“First and foremost, we've got to go win the football game,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “And we've got to play well. But there are some guys like a Tony Stevens that you'd like to get more action. Marcus Davis is already playing more. I think a guy like an Avery Young, maybe try to get him more meaningful reps, too.”
On defense, the freshmen players who are most likely to see more action include the trio up front -- Adams, Lawson and Elijah Daniel -- cornerbacks Johnathan Ford and Kamryn Melton, and possibly Mackenro Alexander, a defensive back who recently moved to the Star position and played against Ole Miss.
“Mackenro got about nine reps to sub [Robenson Therezie], and I bet those reps, down the line, are going to help him,” Johnson said. “That’s the first time he’s had any true game experience. He did some good things. We hope in the future we can give him some rotation a little bit out there.”
But the freshmen who has received the most attention this week is quarterback Jeremy Johnson. The ESPN 300 recruit has yet to play a snap this season, but with starter Nick Marshall still questionable with a knee injury, there’s a chance the staff turns to Johnson on Saturday. He battled for the starting job during fall camp.
“We have not played him yet, and I know obviously it is getting to a point now where you have to do what is best for him and what is best for your team,” Malzahn said. “But he is still getting a lot of reps in practice and he is improving, there is no doubt.”
2hMark Schlabach and Sharon Katz