TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The road from blue-chip recruit to the playing field at Alabama is often a short one.
For all his old-school ways in some regards, the third-ranked Crimson Tide’s coach Nick Saban has no aversion to playing freshmen — if he thinks they’re ready. He’ll send out a handful of youngsters Saturday night against No. 20 Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas in a billion dollar stadium on prime-time television.
The old adage that teams might lose a game for each freshman playing is even more outdated than, say, huddling in college football. That’s even true for an Alabama program with five-star recruits dotting the roster from a string of top-rated signing classes.
"Way back in the day, I remember when Woody Hayes said, when freshmen weren’t eligible, you lose one game for every sophomore that you play," the 63-year-old Saban said. "We’ve changed quite a bit. I think that it’s just the culture now relative to the number of guys you have on scholarship."
Players come in expecting to play early. And redshirting is mainly for those who aren’t immediately needed or just aren’t ready. If a player can help the Tide win, the mind-set, Saban said, is "let’s just go ahead and play him."
Alabama’s inexperience extends well beyond the three quarterback contenders, two of whom haven’t thrown a college pass.
Don’t be surprised if tailback Damien Harris gets a few carries. Or if Calvin Ridley gets the ball thrown his way in his college debut. And 315-pound Daron Payne might just greet a ball carrier at the line.
Those freshmen are joined by classmate Minkah Fitzpatrick and redshirt freshmen Marlon Humphrey and Ross Pierschbacher on the Tide’s opening game depth chart.
Humphrey, a prized recruit last year, is expected to start at cornerback opposite Cyrus Jones. Pierschbacher is the first-team left guard. Fitzpatrick is battling fellow five-star prospect, sophomore Tony Brown, to be Humphrey’s backup and is also listed as the starter at the star position.
Ridley is challenging sophomore Robert Foster for a starting spot at receiver.
Then there’s Payne, one of the Tide’s biggest recruits in both ranking and girth. He’s trying to beat out Darren Lake as the first-team nose guard on a deep defensive front where several former top prospects are subs.
"He’s been a man-child," linebacker Reggie Ragland said of Payne. "He came in and stepped up. He’s been working hard, and coach Bo (Davis) has been on him because he knows he has to come in and play. So coach Bo has been on him, coach Saban has been on him, coach (Kirby) Smart has been on him, and he’s been a man-child and doing what he has to do from day one since he got here."
Defensive end A’Shawn Robinson led the team in sacks as a freshman, after all.
Last season, Cam Robinson became the first Tide freshman to start at left tackle since Andre Smith in 2006 and held the post every game.
Harris is the latest in a line of top-rated tailbacks with a shot at immediate playing time, following Henry, Trent Richardson, T.J. Yeldon and the less-heralded Mark Ingram.
"Aw, man. He’s really explosive," tight end O.J. Howard said. "He’s picking up really fast on offense."
Like Harris, Ridley was rated the top prospect at his position by several recruiting services. He’s trying to follow eventual NFL first-rounders Julio Jones and Amari Cooper in making a big impact out of high school.
Saban said both Harris and Ridley have done well.
"Damien Harris has had a really, really good camp," he said. "Certainly we have no apprehensions about using him in the game.
"Calvin Ridley has made progress. I think he needs to continue to improve and develop confidence in what he’s doing. I think he has a chance to be a real contributing player for us this year."