Play The Best Players – 2015 Edition

Courtesy iuhoosiers.com

True freshmen Leon Thornton and Devonte Williams battle it out in fall practice. Courtesy iuhoosiers.com

In his first four seasons in Bloomington, Kevin Wilson hasn’t been afraid to throw true freshmen into the mix.  So which members of the 2015 recruiting class can we expect to see on the field this fall?

The Factors

Last August, we discussed K Dub’s redshirt/play decision-making for true freshmen.  We identified four factors that help us predict whether a given true freshman will play right away:

(1) Early enrollment – a freshman that starts his college career a semester early and gets a spring practice under his belt improves his odds of playing as a true freshman.  There were no early enrollees in the 2015 class so this factor will take a year off.

(2) Positional need – graduation, injuries and general attrition[ref] You know, like a player getting dismissed from the team for running drugs out of his apartment. Sorry. Too soon.[/ref] can leave the coaching staff with no choice but to run true freshmen out there.  This year, corner and safety are two huge positions of need.  As a result, true freshmen Andre Brown, Devonte Williams and Tyler Green could all see action at corner, while fellow freshmen Jameel Cook and Jonathan Crawford are in the running for playing time at safety.[ref] Devonte Williams is an especially interesting case.  He starred at running back in high school and was expected to challenge for playing time at that position, but the need at corner was simply more pressing than at running back, where Jordan Howard and Devine Redding are expected to carry most of the load.[/ref]  J’Shun Harris’ injury and Camion Patrick’s ineligibility have made wide receiver another position of need, likely to be filled in part by the freshmen pair of Leon Thornton and Nick Westbrook.

(3) Physical maturity – This factor is sometimes more about physical immaturity keeping certain freshmen from playing in their first season on campus.  Now redshirt sophomore Rashard Fant was the prime example, when he arrived in Bloomington in 2013 weighing all of 160 pounds.  His body simply wasn’t ready for the pounding of major college football.[ref] Two years and 20 pounds later, Fant is expected to start at corner in 2015.[/ref]  This year, Kevin Wilson has commented on the size and physical maturity of true freshman defensive backs Tyler Green and Andre Brown.

(4) Overall talent – Sometimes a player is just too good to redshirt, regardless of any of the other factors. Tegray Scales fit into this category in 2014. There was some positional need at inside linebacker, but Scales was going to force his way onto the field either way. The tricky part about predicting this factor is that we’re almost entirely reliant on recruiting rankings.  Case in point: last year we predicted that former 4-star receiver Dominique Booth would be too talented to redshirt. While that was true and Booth did see quite a bit of playing time in 2014, the results weren’t the best – 8 catches for 70 yards and no TDs on the year.

This season, tackle Brandon Knight would be a candidate to force his way onto the field through sheer talent, except future NFL draft pick Jason Spriggs is already firmly ensconced at left tackle.  Still, Kevin Wilson has raved about Knight’s size and skill set, and you can bet that Wilson and O-line coach Greg Frey won’t be afraid to plug Knight in at right tackle or even guard if they think he’s the best option.  Defensively, extreme positional need at corner means Tyler Green will play in 2015, but his talent may well have made that happen even if the need didn’t exist.

Wilson’s Track Record

Last year, 13 of 24 true freshmen in the 2014 class played, moving the 4-year percentage in the Wilson era to 51%.[ref] 40 of 78 true freshmen recruits have played since 2011. JuCo players are excluded.[/ref] The highest percentage of redshirts in a season came in 2012, when 71% (12 of 17) of the true freshmen in the class sat their first season out.  Last season’s redshirt percentage of 46% was the lowest in Wilson’s tenure.

The 2015 Class

With the four factors, Wilson’s track record and Wilson’s recent comments in mind, the chart below contains our predictions for the 2015, arranged in descending order from most likely to play to least:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.34.29 PM

That’s 8 out of 21 that we project will play, which would be the 2nd highest redshirt percentage (62%) of the Wilson era.  With experience on the offensive and defensive lines and at linebacker, all of the players that we expect to play are in the defensive secondary or at wide receiver.[ref] True freshman wideout Isaac James would be an “N” in the chart above were if not for an injury that seems likely to hold him out for the year.[/ref]  I would consider this projection the floor for true freshmen participation, rather than a ceiling.  A few injuries could force the coaching staff to burn the redshirts of guys like linebackers Reakwon Jones, Omari Stringer or tackle Brandon Knight.

This team appears to be right on the cusp of achieving goals that IU football hasn’t achieved in awhile, but for this team to achieve its full potential, true freshmen must contribute, especially in the secondary and at wide receiver.  Kevin Wilson will give them every opportunity to do so.