Freshmen. True freshmen. Thanks to improvements in weight training and increased information synthesis, these 17- and 18-year-olds are seeing their importance to good football teams increase across the board.
A group of guys who used to never get to play are now being counted on to help their teams win. Guys who, not too long ago, would be lucky to get some snaps in their first year are inserting themselves into starting lineups. Athletes who would have largely been redshirts are now putting in work on Saturdays.
Back in the day, the first time players touched weights was when they got to college. Then high schools got serious about football, and they had their players doing basic lifting regimens to help their teams improve. It was not much, but it helped schools beat their competition and helped players keep in shape.
Enter the modern era; weight training at every level is more advanced than ever before. That long-enduring barrier between what college kids are doing in weight rooms and what high schoolers are doing no longer exists. Sure, the intensity differs and the instruction gets better in college; but make no mistake, high schools are pushing to make their strength and conditioning programs mirror their collegiate big brothers more and more each day.
As a result, the high school athlete that is being delivered to his new college football head coach is a bigger, stronger version of what programs used to get. The players, thanks to the improved teaching, are also more advanced. That means less time spent teaching or re-teaching an entire freshman class how to power-clean or how to get low on squats.
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Less time spent teaching and re-teaching means more time for the players to get acclimated to the rigors of college football—less soreness because these kids are used to weight training and less wasted time on basics because the players are coming in ready to run.
Improved weight-room techniques are only a part of the biggest contributor to freshman success. Recruiting happens faster. Players are bombarded with more information, and because they are used to this "information age," they synthesize at a quicker pace.
Football, for this new crop of players, is more than just a fun game that they play. It's their life, and they want all the information they can get, including the playbook. Because of the digital age that we live in, players can get that playbook quickly and use it efficiently. Summer practicing is not even an option anymore, as freshmen report to summer practices and learn the defense or offense from their teammates before they ever sit down with a coach.
Taking in information is the key reason why guys are on the field. Let's face it, if you're a physical monster but you don't know what you're doing, you can't help your team win. So we see physical specimens like Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall succeed because they have processed enough information to be a factor.
Running back is the "easiest" transition, but that's not the only spot we see kids come in and make an impact. Jadeveon Clowney and Corey Lemonier both came into the SEC and made opponents pay with their athleticism and ability to disrupt plays in the backfield. Sammy Watkins in the ACC and De'Anthony Thomas in the Pac-12 burned their conferences because they were too fast and too dangerous to slow down.
As a guy who is still just under a decade removed from being a college football freshman, watching the transition become increasingly smooth is quite intriguing. Coaches are not inclined to waste a year of a kid's career and kids are not inclined to spend a year on the bench either. Coaches need players and players want to play. It's a perfect storm for the advancement of the process.