Some freshmen are not sitting on the bench, they’re taking starting jobs and making plays
When Oregon football head coach Willie Taggart addressed his team for the first time, he said he was going to run it like an NFL team.
“My job as a head coach is to go out and recruit guys to take your job, ok,” Taggart said in a video posted by goducks.com. “It’s on you to keep your job. That’s what it’s going to take. That’s how we’re going to run our football program.
“Pretty fair, isn’t it?”
So far, Taggart has delivered on his promise. Freshmen are taking starting jobs from upperclassmen. Like any other player, they earn playing time by performing well in practice. But some freshmen are doing more than just earning playing time — they’re making a significant impact.
After eleven freshmen traveled to Wyoming, there are four freshmen listed as starters for Oregon’s upcoming game against Arizona State: wide receiver Johnny Johnson III, nose guard Austin Faoliu, safety Nick Pickett and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr.
Against Nebraska, Graham Jr. didn’t look like a typical freshman. It was clear Nebraska’s game plan was to target the receivers Graham Jr. was covering as a way to exploit his inexperience. On Nebraska’s first offensive play, they threw deep at Graham Jr. The freshman tracked the receiver successfully and tipped the ball in the air where senior safety Tyree Robinson intercepted it.
Later in the game, he intercepted two passes. Any takeaway is significant, but those plays were huge in what ended as a seven-point game.
Taggart, who relayed Graham Jr.’s message to the media after the game, was energized by the freshman’s performance.
“[Graham] said he’s so excited,” Taggart said. “That’s why he came to Oregon, to help this football team turn this program around. … For him to be as young as he is and know as much football as he does, it’s great to have and it’s great to know we’re going to have him for while around here.”
Despite his accomplishments against Nebraska, Graham Jr.’s performance wasn’t all candy and roses. He allowed a Nebraska wide receiver to catch a ball over him in the endzone. It could’ve been a demoralizing play for any player, especially a freshman. But clearly, Graham Jr. is no ordinary freshman.
“The biggest thing I liked is that he battled back after that first touchdown he gave up and was able to finish the game and help us win,” cornerback coach Charles Clark said.
Clark, who coached at Colorado before joining Oregon’s staff in January, remembers scouting and recruiting Graham Jr. during his sophomore year of high school.
Graham Jr. is a crucial part of the defense’s success. It’ is proven by the fact that he passed experienced cornerbacks on the depth chart to earn his spot.
“Thomas is really a special player,” senior cornerback Arrion Springs said. “He’s got great hands, great ball instincts. I’m just helping him out, Ugo [Amadi’s] just helping him out. We’re just making sure he’s just ready to play.”
Springs was also quick to point out that Graham Jr.’s stats are impressive given his brief time at Oregon.
“He does have more interceptions [than I do in] my career in two games,” Springs said.
It’s no secret that Oregon’s defense was horrendous last season. But now, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is trusting a group of freshmen to be crucial elements in turning it around.
Graham Jr.’s impact can clearly be seen on the stat sheet. He’s tied with Ugochukwu Amadi for the team lead in interceptions with two, and his 14 solo tackles ranks second on the team. But for nose guards Faoliu and Scott, whose jobs are also extremely important, their impact isn’t always represented on the stat sheet.
In a 3-4 defensive scheme, the nose guard is the anchor. They line-up against the center and their task is to take up space in the middle. The goal is to attract multiple offensive linemen in order to allow other defensive linemen and linebackers more space to operate. While others get the glamor for the tackle, the nose guard’s work can go unnoticed to the untrained eye.
Scott and Faoliu, despite being freshmen, have played well.
“I’m very confident in their abilities to be starters for us at nose tackle,” center Jake Hanson said. “They’re very different players. Obviously Jordon is the typical two-gapping nose. Austin has a lot more wiggle to him, I guess you could say.”
Per UO, Faoliu did not travel to Wyoming due to an ankle injury, but Taggart expects him to be back for Arizona State.
The duo of Faoliu and Scott has so far combined for four tackles and zero sacks. But they know their job is more than stuffing the box score, and like Graham Jr., they’ve handled it well.
“They didn’t stumble,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said. “That’s a good thing, and you’re always leery about those things. But those guys have a different temperament about the game and it’s refreshing. With that, we continue to push and prod and provoke those two guys to continue to improve.”
When a new coach is hired, they usually have a short period of time to compile their first recruiting class. Taggart had roughly a month, yet he was able to compile a top-20 class. He got some talented recruits that showed potential to take starting jobs.
Taggart has so far stayed true to his word, but it’s hard to know exactly what his expectations were for the freshmen. So, is he surprised?
“No, not necessarily because we’ve seen it in practice,” Taggart said. “All these guys that you’ve seen playing out on Saturday, they did a lot of these things in training camp, and some of them did it in spring ball. … It’s not surprising. It’s just a matter of getting them in there and letting them do what they do.”
Among them is Johnson III. The wide receiver from Chandler, Arizona, broke into an experienced offense that needed reinforcements at the receiver position.
Johnson III had instant chemistry with quarterback Justin Herbert, and he showed his big play potential with a 51-yard diving catch.
The freshmen are making an impact this season. Right now, Taggart and Oregon have a recruiting class ranked in the top-10, according to 247sports.com. His philosophy will not change, and those incoming players will have an equal opportunity to earn playing time.
So the freshmen who took jobs this year will have to fight to keep them next year.
Follow Jack Butler on Twitter @Butler917