Many Atlantic Coast Conference coaches knew that they were going to have to rely on underclassmen coming into the season.
Now, a little more than halfway through, the youth movement is noticeable.
There are 19 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that have 13 seniors or less, six are in the ACC – the most of any conference. Going into this week’s games, 39 freshmen are listed as starters compared to 28 at this time last season.
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As is the case with youth, coaches never know what to expect.
Several teams have had success with youngsters, including No. 17 Florida State and 23rd-ranked Pittsburgh, both 6-1, and North Carolina, which is 5-2. But Miami (4-3), Louisville (3-4) and Wake Forest (3-5) have struggled.
Wake Forest has the fewest seniors of any FBS school with six. Second-year coach Dave Clawson is working through a steady rebuilding project with six freshmen starters and 18 listed on the two-deep for Saturday’s game against Louisville.
Clawson said the biggest lesson he’s learned when it playing freshmen is to have an abundance of patience.
”We’ve got to demand more, but we can’t do things that we lose our players,” the Wake Forest coach said. ”Again, when you’re playing as many freshmen and sophomores as we are, this is not just a one-year project.”
Syracuse has five freshmen starters and through seven games, freshmen have accounted for 73.8 percent of the Orange’s 2,395 yards of total offense (1,767 yards).
Eric Dungey is one of three freshmen starting quarterbacks in the conference. Coach Scott Shafer has been impressed with how quickly Dungey has been able to learn the playbook but also adjust to opposing defenses.
”In high school, usually you line up against one or two defenses, one or two coverages. At the collegiate level, there’s a multitude of combinations,” Shafer said. ”What they’re trying to learn about the defense is probably the most difficult thing to learn.”
After Boston College’s Darius Wade was lost for the season with a broken ankle in a Sept. 18 loss to Florida State, the Eagles have had Troy Flutie, the nephew of 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, and Jeff Smith splitting the quarterback duties.
Coach Steve Addazio was hoping to avoid injuries since 64 of his 85 scholarship players were underclassmen.
”That is what has really kicked us in the ribs really hard. Because when you take that on when you are as young as we are, that is hard to overcome,” Addazio said of injuries. ”It caught up with us this year a little bit in this rebuilding process.”
Louisville, which has had nine freshmen make at least one start on offense, is led by Lamar Jackson, who has accounted for 1,617 yards of offense including 482 rushing. Coach Bobby Petrino has been more patient because of what Jackson adds as a dual threat but has seen Jackson progress as a passer the past three games.
Jackson is also one of four freshmen among the conference rushing leaders.
Pittsburgh’s Qadree Ollison – the conference’s leading freshman rusher – likely would not have seen the field much if it wasn’t for an injury. When James Conner tore his ACL in the opener that opened the door for Ollison. After entering the season as the Panthers’ third-string running back, he is averaging 94.6 yards per game, fourth in the conference
Also among the leaders are Georgia Tech’s Marcus Marshall (seventh, 72.6 yards per game), Virginia Tech’s Travon McMillian (eighth, 70.0) and Jackson (ninth, 68.9).
Coaches agree that running back is one of the easier places for freshmen to make an immediate impact because they are playing a lot in space.
”The pass protection might take some time to pick up but guys are physically more mature,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. ”Learning five or six running plays is not hard and your ability can take over quicker.”
But No. 3 Clemson has found a way to get it done.
The Tigers rely more on freshmen after Mike Williams was lost the first week with a neck injury. Hunter Renfrow, Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud and Trevian Thompson have 52 of the Tigers’ 149 receptions. Only Thompson played receiver in high school.
”We knew there’d be some kind of development. They’ve been able to go through some growing pains,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jeff Scott said. ”It was not a year where they had go out and be the guy day one. They’ve been able to play and get a lot of key experience.”
Along with a cadre of other ACC freshman.
AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky, Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina and John Kekis in Syracuse, New York, contributed to this report.
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