For the second straight season, 2011 brought us somewhat of a rarity in the Bill Snyder era: three freshman who made a noticeable impact and gave us plenty of reason to be excited about their future. Actually, it's one of the few areas where the 2010 team comes out on top.
Ty Zimmerman and Tramaine Thompson were certainly anomalies under Snyder, as Zimmerman was a freshman All-American and Thompson would have likely gotten some sort of recognition had he kept up his pace (19 catches for 258 yards) through seven games before his injury. Andre McDonald doesn't get mentioned a lot with his two classmates, particularly with all the buzz around Travis
Tannehill Tannahill but anytime a freshman tight end gets significant playing time and a touchdown (even if it was just against KU) it's worth mentioning.
The 2011 freshman class is especially notable for actually having a true freshman in Tyler Lockett, who put up numbers (18 catches for 246 yards and a TD through 8 games) comparable to what Thompson did. Curry Sexton made a few plays at wide receiver as well, but perhaps the best freshman last year was starting center B.J. Finney, whose importance was made abundantly clear when he was named a captain heading into his sophomore season.
Snyder teams are not known for having freshman play major roles for two reasons, the first being that it's just part of his old-school style, and I'm fine with that. The second is that even a real wizard would have trouble recruiting top-tier talent to Manhattan, so there aren't a lot of guys that absolutely have to be on the field in their first year.
Keep in mind that even guys like Darren Sproles, Josh Buhl and Nick Leckey only started as freshman when the guys ahead of them were injured. Leckey and Sproles were able to skip the redshirt season and get to the NFL quicker, where it didn't take long to prove they belonged.
Obviously, I'm not putting Lockett, Finney or Sexton anywhere near that level just yet, but a look back at the short list of freshman who have made a significant impact under HCBS since 2000 gives some good reason for optimism.
Thompson isn't the best example for Lockett to follow in terms of a freshman to sophomore improvement, as the junior more or less held steady after his great rookie season. He did at least show he could more or less maintain that pace for an entire season, totaling 338 yards on 21 catches for a team that treated passing the same way Kobe Bryant does.
The better example for young Lockett to follow would be Jermaine Moreira, who played a full season and topped Thompson with 277 yards his freshman season. But it was as a sophomore that he had 39 catches and four touchdowns, though Lockett will want to stop emulating Moreira there, since those were his career highs.
A good precedent for Sexton would be Davin Dennis, who caught just three passes for 20 yards as a freshman in 2002. He followed that with the best season of his career, posting 22 catches, 404 yards and four touchdowns.
Another player who went from decent fill-in guy to star sophomore was Ian Campbell, who of course had 67 tackles and 11.5 sacks in 2006 before
Rasheem Raheem Morris left. That allowed Ron Prince and Tim Tibesar to convince Campbell that he didn't need to try so hard, since defense isn't really important.
Somehow, Snyder recruit Reggie Walker, who had 16 tackles as a freshman, saw improvement for his first two Prince seasons, leading to a total of 65 tackles, three sacks an interception in his career-best junior year. We can only imagine what kind of numbers Walker might have put up under Snyder, considering the difference between his career and those of two other linebackers from the early aughts with somewhat similar freshman numbers.
Buhl actually had five less tackles than Walker did as a freshman, but he moved up quickly to Honorable Mention All-Big 12 status with 68 total tackles. By the time he was a senior, he was one of the most feared linebackers in the league and drawing the attention of several National Football League teams.
Terry Pierce was a little bit ahead of the curve, earning a starting spot six games into his redshirt freshman season and posting 39 tackles to earn Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2000. He upped that total to 68 and starting getting some higher recognition as a sophomore, and by the end of his spectacular junior season (104 tackles!) he was good enough to be a second round draft pick in 2003.
Andrew Shull was yet another defender who made a minimal impact as a freshman reserve on the defensive line before going on to have a fine career, but I think you get the point. Ty Zimmerman was truly the exception to the rule in the way that he put up massive numbers his very first season.
But despite the decrease from 74 to 58 tackles and 3 INTs to 2, I think anyone who watched a reasonable amount of KSU football in both years knows he was a much better player as a sophomore. The difference was his coverage was better, his reputation preceded him, and most importantly, he had a much more capable linebacking corps to take away some of his tackles.
As for Finney, it would be unfair to compare him to Nick Leckey, the stud in college and later the pros who was, not coincidentally, the only true freshman to start on the offensive line in the Snyder era. Instead. B.J. should perhaps look to Jordan Bedore, who started eight games as a freshman center in 2005 and worked his way to Big 12 Honorable Mention by his senior year.
Or he could even look to Rashaad Norwood, a tight end who played some as a freshman in 2004 but became a fixture on the KSU offensive line beginning in 2005. He even played a big role in the passing game in 2006, when he caught 36 passes for 358 yards.
I don't want to leave anyone out, so I'll also quickly mention Ayo Saba (freshman in 2001), Victor Mann (2001), Quintin Echols (2005), Travis Tannahill (2009), Braden Wilson (2009) and of course, Ell Roberson (2000) as players who did enough for us to learn their names as freshman before going on to have impressive careers. Please don't hesitate to let me know if I'm forgetting anyone from this millennium.
Now, obviously, it's no revelation that Bill Snyder does quite well when it comes to player development, so of course freshman who see the field frequently are more than likely destined to become sensational sophomores, to use some Dickie V parlance. But at least for me as I thought about the three sophomores mentioned above, it was encouraging to actually look back and see the supporting evidence.
All that being said, Snyder is not quite perfect, and the more astute readers will realize that there have been some successful freshmen who did their best to prove my thesis incorrect. I'm saving those inconsiderate players for a shorter, less optimistic post later this week for which I am currently taking title suggestions.