The Freshmen Who've Helped Carry Alabama, Clemson to National Title Game

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 6, 2016

Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
Alabama WR Calvin RidleyLM Otero/Associated Press

For powerhouses like top-ranked Clemson and second-ranked Alabama, the old cliche typically holds true: They don't rebuild. They reload.

It just so happens that, this year, both participants in Jan. 11's College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium did so with several freshmen.

Clemson entered the season with massive question marks along the offensive line. Four of the five starters from last year's group had to be replaced, and head coach Dabo Swinney had no qualms about thrusting a true freshman into the most critical spot.

Clemson OL Mitch Hyatt (75)
Clemson OL Mitch Hyatt (75)Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

Mitch Hyatt, a 5-star prospect from the class of 2015 from Suwanee, Georgia, was inserted into the starting lineup from day one. The 6'5", 295-pounder has done a tremendous job protecting quarterback Deshaun Watson's blind side, is punishing in the running game and is a big reason why the Tigers rank 19th in the nation in sacks allowed per game (1.14).

"I haven't been around another true freshman left tackle that has started every game," Swinney said on Monday's teleconference. "But that's a very difficult position to play, regardless of your experience, and for a true freshman to do it has been remarkable—especially on a 14-0 team, and I'm really, really proud of him.

"He's still a young player. He's not even close to what he's going to be, but he's got the commitment and the drive and the work ethic. The guy cares, and that's what makes it so fun to coach him. He's a very smart player, and he's going to give you everything he's got each and every practice, each and every game, and that's all you can ask for. And with the talent that he has, he's just going to continue to blossom."

Hyatt has been so good that he has become an afterthought for his own coach.

"He's a guy we don't really notice a whole lot to be honest with you," Swinney said. "Typically with a true freshman you're holding your breath all the time."

Clemson DL Austin Bryant
Clemson DL Austin BryantAndy Lyons/Getty Images

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, another true freshman was thrown into the fire against Oklahoma in Clemson's Capital One Orange Bowl national semifinal win over Oklahoma on New Year's Eve.

When star defensive end Shaq Lawson left the game with a leg injury, 6'4", 265-pound Austin Bryant stepped right in and played a big role in what turned out to be a stellar defensive performance for the Tiger front four.

The Pavo, Georgia, native had four tackles and a half-sack in Lawson's stead, and he routinely found himself in the Sooner backfield disrupting plays and forcing quarterback Baker Mayfield to scramble.

"I think that's what you saw in the bowl game, is even though Austin has played—not as much as Shaq—but the cumulative effect of his experience and the practice and just being able to bring him at a healthy pace has been very beneficial for us," Swinney said. "It paid off in the game the other night because he was ready to play, and he was confident, and we've seen that grow and mature all year long."

Bryant was just one of several youngsters who were in on the key 4th-and-1 stop of Sooner running back Samaje Perine in the third quarter that swung momentum back to Clemson.

"The 4th-and-1, the initial hit, was Austin Bryant," Swinney said. "It was Austin Bryant, Dorian O'Daniel and Kendall Joseph—another freshman who hasn't played a lot. But those three guys were two freshmen and a sophomore making a big stop on 4th-and-1, which was a key play in the game."

He didn't even mention the play of Christian Wilkins. The true freshman and former 5-star prospect from Massachusetts, who notched three tackles against Oklahoma, was a monster in the middle of the line and rumbled 31 yards after catching a fake punt in the first half.

Clemson's Christian Wilkins
Clemson's Christian WilkinsJoel Auerbach/Getty Images

It isn't just former blue-chippers doing work as freshmen for Swinney and the Tigers.

They lost stud wide receiver Mike Williams to a season-ending neck injury in the first game of the season, and freshman walk-on Hunter Renfrow has stepped in and become a big part of the passing attack during the title-game run.

The 5'10", 175-pound redshirt freshman has 26 catches for 404 yards and three touchdowns on the year, and he took on an even bigger role in the Orange Bowl in place of suspended true freshman receiver Deon Cain. He came through with flying colors, with four catches for 59 yards and a touchdown.

"Our walk-ons (Renfrow and redshirt freshman place-kicker Greg Huegel) scored more points in the Orange Bowl than Oklahoma did," Swinney said, according to Scott Keepfer of the Greenville News.

For Alabama head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, all they had to do is replace Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper with a true freshman.

No problem. Calvin Ridley, a 21-year-old 6'1", 188-pound former 5-star prospect from Coconut Creek, Florida, has stepped right in and had an even more impressive true freshman season in Tuscaloosa than Cooper.

Amari Cooper vs. Calvin Ridley: True Freshman Stats
PlayerYearGamesRecYdsTD
Amari Cooper2012145899911
Calvin Ridley201514831,0317
CFBStats.com

With speed to burn, size to go up over any defensive back and strength to get off the line of scrimmage, Ridley has caught 83 passes for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns for the Crimson Tide. In the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State, he torched the Spartan secondary to the tune of eight catches for 138 yards and two scores.

"We just have a lot of athletes on the outside," quarterback Jake Coker said after the Cotton Bowl, according to the postgame quotes on CollegePressBox.com. "Calvin did a great job of just getting up and making plays. And it makes things a lot easier on me, a lot easier than it should be. He's one heck of a player."

While Ridley has dominated headlines with his stellar play, the Crimson Tide boast a defense littered with impact true freshmen who have found their way into key roles despite a loaded roster that includes redshirt freshman cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team.

Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Alabama DB Minkah FitzpatrickKevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Minkah Fitzpatrick is listed as Alabama's starter at "Star" and has been one of the key contributors to a secondary that has found an identity after two years of struggles. He's seventh on the team with 41 tackles, has returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns and broken up nine passes en route to SEC All-Freshman honors.

Ronnie Harrison enrolled early, notched 16 tackles and picked off two passes as the backup strong safety to Eddie Jackson. Harrison, a 6'3", 218-pounder from Tallahassee, Florida, slides into an even bigger role when Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart use their "dime" package.

Alabama DL Daron Payne
Alabama DL Daron PayneRonald Martinez/Getty Images

Defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne, a 6'2", 315-pound former 5-star prospect from Birmingham, has just 13 tackles on the year but is a key part of the rotation at nose guard for a defensive line that depends on rotating bodies in order to keep everybody fresh. 

"I've been very, very pleased with those guys," Saban said on Monday's teleconference. "I think a lot of times freshmen are really, really excited about getting the opportunity to play, but I think the ones that can focus on developing and stay focused on the things they need to do to be the kind of players they need to be to contribute to the team is really the most important factor. And all three of those guys have done that extremely well."

Both of these teams have successfully reloaded after key departures, and they've done so with freshmen in key roles who have contributed to their success en route to the national championship game.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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