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True Freshmen Wide Receivers Can Make an Impact at the FBS Level

May 26, 2020

The tried and true method of team-building says recruiting classes don’t mean much to a team’s bottom line until two or three years down the road. A freshman comes in—the adjustment from high school to college is in some instances harsher than the one from college to the pros—and either mentally develops or physically matures and those first few years in a strength program are critical.

“One of the keys in this league will be to have a veteran team,” head coach Scott Frost said back in March. “Get old and stay old. Having guys out on the field that have experience that are physically ready to play in this league (is important). It's hard to flip a roster and get there fast.”

Particularly in the trenches. Under Frost, Nebraska’s approach with linemen on either side is to proceed with patience.

Ty Robinson, even though highly-regarded and highly-recruited, was redshirted in his first year on campus, and that likely would have been the case even if the top defensive line wasn’t entirely senior-laden.

Even though some felt Matt Farniok’s best position was on the interior of the offensive line, and many feel Bryce Benhart is a future difference-making tackle, there was no move to be made in the 2019 season because a true freshman Benhart just wasn’t physically ready to do the job.

Skill guys feel different.

Purdue, in back-to-back seasons, had a true freshman wide receiver not just play right away but register 1,000-yard seasons. First, in 2018, Rondale Moore caught 114 balls for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns. He won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player and became the first true freshman consensus All-American in Big Ten history. A year later, aided in part by injuries limiting Moore to only four games, a true freshman David Bell produced an 86-catch, 1,035-yard, seven-score season.

In both years, Purdue’s diaper dandies led all freshmen in receiving.

That’s one extreme end of the spectrum, but my hypothesis was that offenses in general are getting younger. With the proliferation of freshmen quarterbacks starting all throughout the country, there seems to be a growing sense, at least at the skill positions, of if a guy has it, why wait?

In 2017, 49 different true freshmen wide receivers played in at least eight games and averaged at least a catch a game. (The cut-off was set as such to find wideouts who had a stable role week-to-week and weren’t just redshirt candidates with a hot stretch).

In 2018, 53 true freshmen wideouts fit that criteria.

In 2019, 52 true freshmen did.

What’s interesting is that in the two seasons since the redshirt rule changed, allowing freshmen to play in up to four games while still being able to save the year of eligibility, the frequency of wideouts playing hasn’t yet changed.

What’s even more interesting is the apparent lack of impact on playing rates the loosening of transfer restrictions has had. Guys can up and leave, in a lot of instances, with impunity now. The transfer portal at first made the grass elsewhere look mighty green.

When it was evident true freshmen wideouts weren’t playing at an increased rate year-over-year (2016 was right on par with the 2017-19), I started to wonder if the highly-recruited guys were seeing the field early because their team was afraid of what would result if they didn’t.

Even that wasn’t the case. At the Power Five level in 2017, 29 true freshmen wideouts met the eight-game, one-catch-a-game threshold. In 2018, that number was at 34. In 2019, the mark stood at 26 true freshmen.

From 2017 to 2019, there were four 5-star wideouts in each class. There were 44 4-stars in 2017, then 59, then 42, but being a highly-rated wideout didn’t mean much in the first year. Only two 5-star guys (Ahmon-Ra St. Brown in 2018, George Pickens in 2019) posted yardage totals inside the top-10 amongst true freshmen wideouts in their respective years.

The majority of guys who could be said to have had roles right away were 3-stars.

Fit and situational context aren’t sexy, but they’re applicable here.

And yet, the average true freshman wideout, of the group of 154 guys looked at over three years, posted a season with 25.9 catches, 341.1 yards, and 2.4 touchdowns. (Which would make Wan’Dale Robinson’s 2019 campaign—40 catches, 453 yards, 2 touchdowns—above average.)

Rather remarkable was the fact that in three straight seasons, the number of true freshmen wide receivers to have at least 20 catches in a season varied only slightly. Twenty-five guys did it in 2017, and they averaged 450 yards a season. Twenty-eight guys did it in 2018, and they averaged 485 yards. Then twenty-eight guys did it in 2019, and they averaged 487 yards.

Specifically for Nebraska, who signed 4-star freshmen wideouts Zavier Betts and Marcus Fleming, there’s a chance that if one or the other plays enough, they’ll make a serious impact on the offense. The average freshmen of the last three years—341 yards gained—would have been the third-best receiver for the Huskers a year ago.

While Nebraska might not have 2020’s version of Rondale Moore or David Bell in its recently-signed crop of first-year players, does it have a guy who can help right away? The odds aren’t as bad as you’d think.

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