Asmussen | Once again, Lovie places faith in freshmen

Asmussen | Once again, Lovie places faith in freshmen

Lovie Smith says it over and over and over again: If you are good enough to play at Illinois, you will get on the field. Regardless of age.

The third-year coach proved it again Saturday, sending 10 first-year players out against Kent State. Only one of the 10, offensive lineman Kendrick Green, had redshirted.

Five freshmen were in the Illinois starting lineup: Green, tight end Daniel Barker and defensive backs Sydney Brown, Delano Ware and Quan Martin.

"Some of the young players are going to have typical first-game things that we don't do well and we'll do better next time," Smith said.

Five other freshmen got in the game at some point: Defensive lineman Calvin Avery, defensive backs Kerby Joseph and Dylan Wyatt, receiver Carlos Sandy and linebacker Khalan Tolson.

"We had that planned," Smith said. "All these guys have done something to show us that, if needed, they were ready to contribute right away."

There are more likely headed to the field in future games, including freshman quarterbacks Matt Robinson and M.J. Rivers.

The new redshirt rule gives college football coaches more roster flexibility. Players can work in up to four games and still maintain the chance to redshirt.

It will allow the coaches to try out some of the players before making a commitment to the full season. If there is a need early in the season at defensive back, where Illinois is missing two suspended starters, the coaches can use freshmen to fill the gap.

If the players appear ready to help long term, they will work the entire season. But if they look to be overmatched early, they can sit the rest of the season and try again next year.

Former Illinois coach Ron Turner always advocated for five years to play five. While this doesn't go quite that far, it accomplishes many of the same goals.

Why wait?

Ask a freshman, any freshman, "Do you want to play this season?" and the answer will always be "Yes."

Actually, more like "YES!!!!"

They have been playing football most of their lives. The idea of coming and sitting out for a season seems ridiculous to them.

And Illinois has plenty of stories of freshman football players who were hits from the start. Defensive lineman Simeon Rice had nine sacks as a rookie. Receiver Mikey Dudek went over 1,000 yards his first year. Running backs Rocky Harvey and Robert Holcombe were productive on their way to Top 10 careers.

But other players need a bit more seasoning. J Leman, who became an All-American as a senior, recently said he needed the redshirt. Linebacker Dana Howard, the school's career tackles leader, sat out 1990 before putting together four dominant seasons.

The decision to play or not to play a freshman can be complicated. If the guy is able help you right away, you want him on the field. But the redshirt year can be valuable, allowing players to gain size, strength and, most important, knowledge.

A bonus: Players are able to focus on their schoolwork without the added pressure of the games.

Early reviews

How well did the freshmen perform against Kent State? Smith was generally pleased.

First-time starter Sydney Brown enjoyed the game. The Bradenton, Fla., native had five tackles.

"It was a great time," Brown said. "It was a little nerve-racking at the start, but I just started to kind of get used to it, play my keys and just play football. At the end of the day, that's what I came here for."

The trickiest part for one player was deciding what name to use with the media. His given name is Jartavius Martin, but he asked to be called Quan. So, Quan it is.

The Floridian had four tackles and a critical interception.

"I had a lot of older guys talking to me, encouraging me throughout the game, every play, every down," Martin said.

Coaches told Martin during the week "be prepared to play a lot."

He let his parents know he was starting. They were at the game.

One trouble spot for Martin: he fumbled after his interception. Fortunately, teammate Stanley Green recovered.

"We talked about it already," Martin said.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.