In the past few years, Alabama hasn’t been used to getting large contributions from true freshmen. With all the talent from No. 1 recruiting classes stockpiled on the Crimson Tide depth chart, first-year players are typically asked to wait their turn and learn from more veteran players before they see meaningful action.
However, this year’s freshman class has made its presence felt on the field in 2015.
Four true freshmen have seen legitimate playing time this season: defensive backs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison, wide receiver Calvin Ridley and defensive lineman Daron Payne, and each one has impressed early on, especially in Saturdays 38-10 win over the Georgia Bulldogs.
Ridley began the season as a reserve receiver behind ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster and Richard Mullaney. But after Foster suffered a shoulder injury and was ruled out for the remainder of the season, Ridley was thrust into a more prominent role as a featured wide receiver in the passing game and he’s adjusted well to the transition.
In the two games since Foster’s injury, Ridley has caught nine passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns, including a 120-yard performance against the Bulldogs that earned him the honor of SEC player of the week. Ridley looks to be building a strong rapport with starting quarterback Jacob Coker and is also the Tide’s best option in the vertical passing game, which had struggled mightily through the first few games of the season,
But as impressive as Ridley’s emergence has been, it’s the performance of the true freshmen on defense that has really stood out.
Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are known for running a defense that compares with NFL schemes with regards to complexity and can typically be difficult for young players to grasp right away. Even the most physically gifted players are sometimes kept off the field until they can get a grasp of the defensive system in Tuscaloosa.
The fact that the Alabama coaches trust Fitzpatrick, Payne and Harrison enough to throw them into action right away says just as much about those players from a mental standpoint as it does from a physical perspective.
Of the three, Fitzpatrick is the only one to step directly into a starting role. After being on campus for only a few months, he earned the starting role at the star position in the Alabama secondary. Fitzpatrick has proved himself reliable both in coverage and as a run-stopper, ranking fourth on the team in tackles and registering two sacks. Fitzpatrick’s most notable play of the season came on a punt block followed by a scoop and score against Georgia.
Harrison, an early enrollee, has also carved his own niche in the secondary, serving as the “money” in the dime package in place of the injured Maurice Smith. Harrison has shown great instincts in the passing game and has been praised by Saban for his immediate grasp of the defensive scheme. He’s used those smarts and instincts to intercept two passes this season, tied with safety Eddie Jackson for the most on the team.
But the most surprising of contributions from the freshman class has come from Payne. The Alabama defensive line is as deep and talented of a position group as you’ll find on any roster in the country. That depth didn’t stop Payne from surging his way up the depth chart and entrenching himself on the defensive line among future first-rounders, A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed. He’s been a force in the middle, constantly demanding double-teams from offensive lines and freeing up other defenders to make plays.
As the season progresses, these freshmen will only improve as they gain more and more experience. But at this point, it’s safe to say the future of Alabama football is in good hands.