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Incoming Freshmen Face Difficult Road To Early Playing Time

For the second year in a row this past February, Alabama signed a star-studded recruiting class that many thought to be the top recruiting class in the country. And just as was the case last summer, many are expecting several of these incoming freshmen to step onto the field this Autumn and have a major impact. Nevertheless, despite the expectations of some, the incoming freshmen will face a very difficult road in their attempt to secure early playing time.

No one needing to be convinced of that contention should have to look any further than this past year with the 2008 recruiting class. If you recall, it was widely expected by nearly everyone that the incoming freshmen then would immediately snag multiple starting jobs, and many projections even had the Tide starting as many as 10 true freshmen.

Just remember a few of the general thoughts this time last year: Julio Jones was going to take over at wide receiver immediately, and Star Jackson was going to make a serious run at John Parker Wilson for the starting quarterback job. Tyler Love was a lock to start at right tackle, and the "Uno" package featuring ultra-athletic Burton Scott was going to make everyone in the SEC take notice. Alonzo Lawrence was going to step in immediately and take one of the starting cornerback jobs, and Mark Barron was going to make quick work of Justin Woodall for the strong safety starting job. Courtney Upshaw was going to take the Jack linebacker position almost immediately, the same goes for Jerrell Harris at strongside linebacker, and there would be several other opportunities for true freshmen to see playing time.

Now how many of those predictions actually came to fruition?

Julio Jones indeed did take over at wide receiver immediately, and even as a true freshman was arguably the best pure wide receiver Alabama has ever had, but aside from his many accomplishments it was a swing and a miss on just about all of the other predictions in the extent of contributions from the incoming freshmen. Star Jackson ultimately redshirted, never seriously contended for the starting job at quarterback, and in fact was probably fourth on the depth chart throughout the year. Tyler Love suffered a stress fracture during summer workouts, and in any event he needed to add weight before reaching his full potential. Drew Davis took over the starting job at right tackle, and did quite well, while Love redshirted. The "Uno" package left Tuscaloosa with Major Applewhite, and Burton Scott had all of two catches last season, and has since been moved to cornerback. Alonzo Lawrence struggled from the beginning and ended up getting a redshirt, while Mark Barron never seriously pushed Justin Woodall for the starting job at strong safety. Both Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw were impressive on special teams (as was Barron), but neither seriously pushed either Cory Reamer or Brandon Fanney for the starting positions at strongside linebacker and Jack linebacker, respectively. All told, while several of the highly-touted freshmen did provide quality depth and valuable production in spot play, only two true freshmen actually started.

What the previous should be is a tale of caution for those expecting the incoming recruiting class in 2009 to suddenly take the entire team by storm upon their arrival. It was not that the 2008 recruiting class was overly hyped and did not live up to expectations. Much to the contrary, actually, as that class looks to be as good as it was billed. The problem, though, is more fundamental. Regardless of the quality of any incoming recruiting class, the road to early playing time is simply very difficult as long as the returning players on the roster are at least somewhat respectable SEC-level players. The returning players just have so many advantages in their favor -- better mental grasp of the schemes, better physical conditioning levels thanks to years in a collegiate S&C program, more game experience, a heightened understanding of what you need to do in order to properly prepare yourself, and in many cases simply more urgency because their college careers are coming to an end and they want to go out with a bang -- that generally only the absolute best of the best, even with a highly-touted class, can legitimately contend for a starting job.

With those reasons for reservation in mind, no one should reasonably expect the 2009 recruiting class to fair any better than its 2008 counterpart. If anything, the 2009 class is going to face an even more difficult road because there is a lot more quality depth throughout the roster now than there was a year ago.

Looking specifically at the signees, it is hard to find many that have the potential to come in and start immediately. You can rest assured that Trent Richardson, if healthy, should have a big impact -- both because of his unbelievable physical conditioning and natural talent, mixed with the uncertainty at tailback with Roy Upchurch and his injury history -- but aside from Richardson, it's hard to find many definites. Many point to D.J. Fluker, but with James Carpenter having the left tackle job locked up (the only way Fluker gets that is if he absolutely blows everyone out of the water this Fall) Fluker's will probably have to win the starting job at right guard in order to see significant amounts of playing time as a true freshman. Likewise, even Dre Kirkpatrick is no cinch in the defensive secondary. Despite the criticisms after the Florida and Utah games, Alabama actually had the best pass defense in the conference last year (despite yet another anemic pass rush), and every single cornerback on the 2008 roster returns for 2009. Furthermore, Kirkpatrick's delayed arrival in Tuscaloosa will only make things that much more difficult. Again, even for someone like Kirkpatrick, early meaningful playing time is far from certain.

Moving on, some people think one of the wide receiver recruits could start early opposite Julio, but again that will be very difficult. Even if Michael Bowman qualifies and Kendall Kelly is fully recovered from hip surgery by the start of Fall camp (neither a given), and even notwithstanding Julio Jones himself, Mike McCoy will play a lot simply because he is a great run blocker and Saban loves his effort, while Earl Alexander's slow but consistent improvement upon his vast physical abilities will also earn him a good deal of playing time. Marquis Maze looked to be a true breakout player this Spring, and of course despite all of the aforementioned players, any true freshman looking for playing time at wide receiver will have to go through the likes of Chris Jackson, Darius Hanks, Brandon Gibson, and others. Likewise, the situation looks to be just as difficult as linebacker, even though the Tide signed a particularly stellar class at that position. Even with recruits like Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick, the quality of the returning players will likely dictate that they likely end up as situational players as true freshmen. Perhaps their only opportunity for a starting job is the possibly vacated Will position if Dont'a Hightower is moved to Jack linebacker full-time, and even then they will have to go through Chris Jordan, a highly-touted recruit in his own right from the 2008 class.

The point of the matter is that regardless of how good the incoming class may be, expectations regarding their initial contributions ought to be conservative. Earning large amounts of playing time as a true freshman is inherently a very difficult thing to do, and in our case is made only more difficult because we return a roster with very few holes. As was the case last year, the 2009 recruiting class may initially yield a starter or two, but the overwhelming majority of the class (barring a bad string of injury luck) is likely to either redshirt, or contribute only in certain situations as back-up players and on special teams. No one should be overly worried about this. Both the 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes look to be of the elite variety, but their time will really come from 2010-2013. For now, perhaps it is best to remember that no matter how good true freshmen are, they are still true freshmen.