The word “freshman” can be either negative or positive, depending on how you take it. In the game of football, it screams inexperienced, young or immature to hardcore fans nervous about the fate of their team. To those who are hopeful for the best, that same freshman can bring energy, explosion and freshness to a club.
Three games aren’t enough to predict the success of a freshman’s first season. But three games should be enough to get a freshman primed. Best, three wins should be able to assure confidence when he next takes the field.
But there is nothing a freshman can do to prepare for playing on the road.
Even if they already had a year to mentally prepare.
Four redshirt freshmen in tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer and linebackers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey have improved week to week.
Both Grimble and Telfer caught touchdown passes from junior quarterback Matt Barkley in Saturday’s 38-17 win over Syracuse. Both Pullard and Bailey led the Trojans in Orange tackles; Bailey with 9 total, adding a forced fumble and sack to his line and Pullard with 7 total, including a tackle for a loss of 3 yards.
“Those young guys are doing a great job. Hopefully they’re just going to keep getting better and better and better, as the season goes on, the more practice time they get, the more reps they get, they should be getting better,” USC linebackers coach Joe Barry said.
“I didn’t play great, but I played well. Hayes played well as well. We’re faster linebackers than normally so we’re just using our speed to our advantage,” Bailey said.
A three-game home stand has helped the Trojans play ‘well’ enough to amass a 3-0 record, including a No. 23 ranking in the Associated Press poll. USC's win Saturday was its first win this season by a margin of more than 9 points.
“It was definitely a confidence booster, I think that’s what we needed,” Grimble said after the game. “Today I think we improved, as long as we just keep progressing each game and getting better I think it’s going to be a really good season.”
While neither tight end has 10 catches for the season, both linebackers have registered a sack and have a combined total of 39 tackles in three games.
Bailey can make plays off the edge, in the nickel, with his speed or just by being a hitter. A converted safety, he hasn’t had many chances to do so in the open field, but that’s not to say he isn’t able. As for Pullard, the Crenshaw High product is quick, can scramble, has great vision and has a knack for reading offenses.
But these strengths are amplified in the comfort of a home crowd, in the Coliseum no less. All four freshmen haven’t really been tested yet.
The toughest defense USC's tight ends saw was Utah’s front seven, which had little effect on the Trojans’ passing game. Of all three quarterbacks faced thus far, in Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray (a dual-threat but definitely stronger on the run), Utah’s Jordan Wynn (still clearly afflicted with a limited shoulder) and Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, no signalcaller falls in the top-30 nationally in quarterback rating. Aside from Nassib, who had a brilliant first quarter against USC completing all of his first 11 passes, neither of the remaining quarterbacks are in the top-70 nationally.
Which lead the Trojans to Brock Osweiler (ranked 35th). Arizona State’s offensive leader is crafty. And tall. At 6-8, 240, Osweiler and the Sun Devils raise their play when facing a tough opponent. Against AP ranked teams, the junior from Montana has completed 75 percent of his throws.
Also, ASU’s only loss this season has been against Illinois, in Champaign. The Sun Devils are likely to match their season-high crowd of 70,236 when the Trojans come to play. It isn’t nicknamed the House of Heat solely because of the weather.
“You look at that roster, especially on defense, they have great players all over the place, they shut down people,” USC Coach Lane Kiffin said. “And they’re extremely explosive with the quarterback and the passing game.”
But Barkley and his young tight ends are also explosive. Kiffin said the reality of playing freshmen is that you will see more mistakes, but he’s hoping these two have finally come into their own.
“Those guys make mistakes when we start playing them, it’s just the reality of it, it’s not an excuse. They’re going to make mistakes,” Kiffin said after the Syracuse win. “[They] came up with big plays today, hopefully have overcome that, as opposed to not playing them early in the first two games, just playing older guys and maybe making those mistakes today.”
Playing time behind him, a mental year of preparation under his figurative belt and three wins to bolster one's confidence should be enough to ride a redshirt freshman into his first road trip.
“I feel good if we continue to practice hard and continue to improve,” Kiffin said.
If these four redshirt freshmen continue on the same pace they have, continued improvement won’t be the problem. The home crowd, on the other hand, might be.