Not too long ago, a true freshman playing for a Pac-10/12 team was a major curiosity, because either the youngster was really good or the team was really desperate. Now most Pac-12 teams start at least one true freshman and play many more.
It's just two games into the 2015 season, but every Pac-12 team has played at least three true freshmen. The conference average is 6.75 per team, with USC playing 14, Washington 10 and California nine. Seven teams start a true freshmen, including three quarterbacks.
Some of that is due to a large number of voids on the depth chart. The Huskies lost a lot of front-line players, welcomed back just nine starting position players and have a senior class of just 13. Yet UCLA welcomed back 18 starters and it's playing eight true freshman, including starting QB Josh Rosen.
"These kids all want to come in and play right away. Most get their eyes opened really quickly and think, 'Maybe I'm not ready,'" Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. "But it's amazing to me how many really are ready."
The biggest reason more freshmen are playing is they no longer look, act or think like freshmen. All three freshmen starting QBs graduated high school early and participated in spring practices. At other positions, including the offensive and defensive lines, young men arrive with fully mature bodies after years of intense and professionalized conditioning. With 7-on-7 teams, more youngsters are playing the sport on a near year-round basis.
Sometimes freshmen play early because a team is rebuilding under a new coach who's trying to shake things up. Washington State coach Mike Leach said he's been playing a lot of freshmen since he took over in 2012 because each year recruiting has improved.
"One freshman class would beat up guys who were already on the team," he said. "The next freshman class would be a little better than the one before. We've kind of been playing leapfrog from one freshman class to the next just filling the talent void here."
But it's not only struggling teams playing more true freshmen. While good teams in the past would load their depth charts with veteran players, the best teams now don't count on their stars sicking around more than three years. These teams suffer significant attrition with players leaving early from the NFL, and they also recruit the four- and five-star athletes who arrive ready -- and expecting -- to play. Alabama, for example, is playing eight true freshmen, following a pattern of a super-elite teams regularly playing true freshman that started with Pete Carroll at USC.
Another reason more true freshmen are playing is because teams are playing more players, period. Teams are using more up-tempo offensive schemes and facing more up-tempo teams on defense, which means more plays per game on both sides of the ball.
"You've got to play more people because of the number of plays and just keeping guys fresh," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Petersen said having a young team doesn't change the way he coaches but he added that it requires more patience. No matter how physically ready a youngster is, his lack of familiarity with schemes and the higher level of competition means he's going to miss assignments.
Yet patience with rookie mistakes only goes so far. First-year Oregon State coach Gary Andersen handed his offense off to true freshman QB Seth Collins, but after two games Andersen made it clear he expects to see progress.
"Two games in now, Seth has enough reps under his belt for us to continue to expect more out of him," Andersen said.
While youth may be wasted on the young, youth better not waste a coach's time and patience.