Utah football: Young players have key roles with Utes
It's a good thing for the Utah Utes that Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby only has the power to make suggestions for the NCAA and not bylaws, for if one of his recent ideas was put into play, the Utes would be in a world of hurt going into their conference opener against the USC Trojans.
Bowlsby recently suggested freshmen shouldn't be allowed to play so they could spend their first year adjusting to college both academically and athletically.
His idea isn't new. Freshmen were ineligible until 1968, when the NCAA allowed freshmen to participate in all sports except football and basketball. A year later, the ban for those sports was nixed.
The idea was revisited in 1983 by the NCAA committee but the proposition was defeated. Now, Bowlsby and others are tossing around the notion again with the idea it would help the athletes academically and it would eliminate the growing trend of basketball players jumping to the NBA after a year of college.
But such a ban would have a huge impact for many schools that regularly rely on young talent including Utah.
Utah has four true freshmen listed on the depth chart who could play big roles in Saturday's game against the Trojans. Eric Rowe is starting at free safety, former Bingham High star Harvey Langi is expected to get playing time at running back, Nate Fakahafua is Joe Kruger's backup at left end, and receiver Charles Henderson is a punt returner.
It isn't that surprising that the Utes, who have recruited a higher level of talent the last two years with their move to the Pac-12, have freshmen in key spots.
But even an established team such as USC has a depth chart peppered with raw talent. Marqise Lee, a 6-foot, 190-pound freshman out of Inglewood, will start at receiver against the Utes, and seven other true freshmen are listed as secondary options.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham understands Bowlsby's concern for academic standards, but he is against any notion that freshmen should be forced to sit out a year. If anything, he sees the trend growing.
"More players are coming in midyear, so true freshmen are developing that much more and they are further ahead physically," he said. "Every year it seems each class is getting bigger, faster and stronger. If a guy is ready to play, why wouldn't you play him?"
However, as successful as freshmen might be on the field, evidence shows they are in a sport that continues to struggle in the classrooms.
According to the NCAA, student athletes had a graduation success rate of 64 percent in 2003 (the most recent year available), compared to 63 percent for the general student body. The graduation success rate for football players was 69 percent, an increase of three points, but still not good enough in the eyes of many.
Also of concern are NCAA studies that have found football players spend 40 or more hours a week involved in their sport, making it challenging for the players to succeed academically.
Whittingham doesn't have a solution to address the academic hurdles other than to continue making academic advisers available to the team and encouraging the players to use the resources available to them such as the study halls and tutors.
He also cautioned that football players shouldn't be treated as a class, but individuals, noting if a freshman is mature enough to shoulder the demands of starting at a major college, normally he is responsible enough to carry the academic load as well.
"You're not going to put a freshman in there unless you think he has the maturation level to handle it," he said. "Freshmen are so different, too. You might have a guy who graduated when he was 19 and is fully developed and another guy who graduated when he was 17 and is a couple years behind. You have to treat each case individually and when they are ready to play, put them in there."
For Fakahafua, who earned a 4.0 GPA as a senior at Highland High School, that call to participate will come Saturday. Fakahafua was one of the biggest stars in the preseason and has continued to impress the coaches. He admits adjusting to college life has taken some time, but views his ability to juggle a class schedule and football demands as part job, part reward.
"It's taken a lot of preparation and practice every day," he said. "It is like a job for me. But I'm excited to get out there and play in front of all those guys in the Coliseum."
Freshmen who may play Saturday
Harvey Langi RB • Backup should see increased time since No. 2 back Tauni Vakapuna has an ankle injury
Eric Rowe, S • Beat out veteran Michael Walker for the right to start at safety
Nate Fakahafua, DE • Listed as Joe Kruger's backup, but he'll get plenty of time in the game
Charles Henderson, PR • Receiver is returning punts along with Griff McNabb
Utah at USC
P Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
TV • Versus