For anyone starting college, the transition from elder statesman high school senior to bottom-of-the-totem-pole freshman on a big campus is, to say the least, an adjustment.
For student-athletes, the change is tenfold. Most all players on Dan Mullen’s football team, whether starters or benchwarmers, were the stars of their high school teams, and not just as seniors.
With their lettermen jackets in tow, they were the studs on their squads, the ones everyone in town talked about, the ones other teams gunned for, the ones recruiting services wrote story-after-story on and the ones college coaches fought over.
They were hot shots.
Then, college starts. Their teammates and opponents change from small-town teams with barely enough funding to afford jerseys and cleats to the country’s elite players and schools in the Southeastern Conference.
Where they were once the stars, now, they’re in a locker room with 100 others who were exactly the same.
There are no wedgies, heads in toilets or scrawny kids getting stuffed in lockers. Worse. There are 330-pound behemoths who want nothing more than to flatten you and put freshmen in their place. In high school, you get protection from bullies. In college, your education requires you to take on these monsters every day.
Sometimes, freshmen are ready to play immediately. More often, even if they never thought it could be true in high school, they need a redshirt year.
“It’s ridiculous,” true freshman linebacker Richie Brown said. “You don’t realize how much one year of football can really change you.”
Like many others, he thought he’d be ready to play. Then, he got to campus, got to practice and saw what he was up against.
Now, in the early portion of bowl practice at Mississippi State, the focus is on Brown and the other youngsters in Maroon and White, after they spent most of the season on scout team.
Next year, they’ll be ready to play after a much-needed season of learning from the sideline.
Brown is glad he chose to take the time to develop.
“I thought, ‘Wow, if I could’ve gone back to my senior year of high school, you could be five times the player you are just by these little concepts you’ve learned, hard work, relentless effort and pursuing the ball.’ Just these little fundamentals that are really the biggest part.”
For Brown and many of his teammates in the 2012 signing class, redshirting was a tough decision, but one they made themselves, with an ultimate goal in mind and with advice from their coach.
“He pretty much said, if you’re gonna play, you’re not gonna get many reps. He gave a lot of us an option,” Brown said. “We said, as a group, if we stay this year, our last years together are gonna be awesome. So, we took most of our class that we could and, collectively, we’re gonna stay together and build together. We feel like we’ve got a great class. We’re excited about the next four years.”
Cornerback Cedric Jiles was a part of that class, too, though his process has been a little different. As soon as he got to campus, “Tiger,” as he’s called, began earning praise from his teammates and coaches, with senior defensive back Corey Broomfield calling him the next superstar.
Talented as he is, the true freshman earned the trust of his coaches and decided not to redshirt. He played immediately, though in a reserve role. Unfortunately, an injury to his hand ended his season early.
It was disappointing, but Jiles said it may have been a blessing in disguise, forcing him into a redshirt year and allowing him the opportunity to play all four years with Brown and and the rest of their highly-touted class.
“It’s all motivation,” Jiles said. “Sitting on that sideline just opens your eyes and makes you wanna go out there and play. It’s such a hunger. I’m ready to come back out on the field next year and make plays.”
With Broomfield, Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay all graduating, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to make those plays.
Part of the transition some can struggle with is the intensity of college football, not just being played fiercely, but being coached at such a high level.
All coaches are different, but as a generality, SEC head coaches, coordinators and assistants aren’t exactly passive men.
And after years of tutelage from those fiery coaches, the seniors and juniors helping the freshmen have developed a similar teaching style.
In fact, Jiles credits the guidance of those senior corners for his development just over the last months since his arrival on campus.
“They were so hard on us,” Jiles said with a smile. “I think we’ll be good next year, because they taught us a lot. They’re great people off the field. It helped us a lot.”
When you’re the star, like in high school, things are a bit easier. It may, initially, be a rude awakening, but freshmen like Jiles say, ultimately, the hard-nosed instruction only makes them better, whether from teammates or coaches.
“If you mess up and get beat deep, they’re gonna be on you in the film room, on the field, everything,” Jiles said. “We’ve got a great coach, too. Coach [Melvin] Smith is gonna be hard on you, too. It makes you play well. You have no choice.”
And now, in mid-December, the young pups go from scout team to first team, as the seniors and starters watch and coach from the sideline. In these early days of Gator Bowl prep, it’s all about the young guys.
“There’s a reason that bowl teams keep going back to bowls, because the twos and threes are getting a lot of pre-spring work,” Brown said. “Here in bowl practice, it’s all you. Coach asks me every day, ‘Who runs the defense, Richie?’ I’m like, ‘It’s me, Coach.’ I gotta get out there and lead the defense when I’m out there. I’ve gotta make sure everyone is enthusiastic and energized, and if the defense doesn’t do good, it’s on me.”
Before long, the attention will turn back to the starters and their matchup with Northwestern in Jacksonville on New Year’s Day. But for now, the young stars get a chance to shine.
“If you work hard,” Jiles said, “good things will come. Johnthan Banks taught me that.”