For the season opener against Florida State, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph never once used inexperience as a determining factor in the loss.
It might be because the inexperience was so prevalent, though. He had a starting quarterback (Tom Savage) and a starting tight end (Manasseh Garner) playing in their first games after sitting out last year due to a transfer rule. He had three offensive linemen making their first start on the offensive line, including redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty at left tackle.
He also had true freshmen James Conner, Jaymar Parrish, Scott Orndoff and Tyler Boyd all getting significant reps.
The challenge isn't getting these younger players motivated, he says.
"I'm excited about the (freshmen), and I'm excited about their play, but it comes down to consistency," Rudolph said. "If everyone can continually be on par with that, then you have a chance to get things going."
While he doesn't want to sugarcoat things, despite some youth involved, Rudolph at the same time is encouraged by the maturity of the freshmen he has.
Boyd is perhaps the best example--a receiver, who started the game with three runs for 54 yards, before even making his first reception. It wasn't by design, yet one of the early growing pains of having a young lineup--knowing their abilities, but unsure of how many snaps to give them in a game. Or, as Rudolph puts it, stacking a true freshman up against an older player who has a redshirt year on him.
All of these things stack up. However, when someone like Boyd maximizes what he can do in a few reps, it gives Rudolph a glimpse and an idea of something to build on, starting with this New Mexico game.
"The trickier thing, is if you talk to them, how they appreciate the rep," Rudolph said. "You're not talking to someone who has had two years on the scout team, and is fighting their tail off to be on the travel squad. Now it's their fourth year, and they're playing special teams. Sometimes, it's a mixed message. It's out job to coach the heck out of them, the let them know how important their role is.
"I think you gotta be smart with them. This bye week gives us a chance to keep growing, getting better. I'm excited about them. I like their approach."
Though not citing it specifically, you can deduct Rudolph is talking mainly at running back and receiver. Boyd got two receptions, ahead of fifth-year senior Ed Tinker and redshirt junior Kevin Weatherspoon--certainly no slouches. While Tinker and Weatherspoon have waited their turn, Boyd obviously has the playmaking ability. With that, while they're impressed with Boyd, they would also like to see him continue to grow. At the same time, they'd like to see the older players push--or assert themselves.
Another prime example is at running back. When the initial depth chart came out, redshirt sophomore Malcolm Crockett was listed as the backup to Isaac Bennett. In the Florida State game, both Bennett and true freshman James Conner ran the ball nine times each. Heading into this New Mexico game, Conner has now supplanted Crockett as the second-team running back.
Just like Rudolph alluded to, though not specifically citing the position, a player like Conner--a true freshman--has to appreciate the reps. Conner showed that in Week One.
Does he put any pressure on himself? Surprisingly, he said he was more nervous for his high school games.
"I was more nervous in high school," Conner explained. "When my number was called on the big stage (in college), I just knew I could run hard, and earn the respect of my teammates. I just try not to think too much, just to let things happen."
If one good thing came out of the loss to Florida State, it was knowing this coaching staff is willing to play a number of freshmen--18 true or redshirt freshmen out of 54 players who s the field. With that first step out of the way, it now seems Rudolph and the rest of the coaching staff is eager to turn the rookie label off, and treat them as those second- or third-year players he refers to--a consistent treatment to everyone, in order to get more consistency.
"My biggest thing is lack of consistency," Rudolph said Tuesday. "We've been hammering them (this week) about being consistent, finishing your job."