EAST LANSING, Mich. – Chris Frey enrolled early for his freshman year at Michigan State. He arrived on campus, got settled into his new surroundings and was with the football team when spring practice began in 2014. He didn’t know then how much, if any, playing time he would see his first season but he wanted to give himself every chance he could to do more than just practice during the week.
Frey ended up being one of just four players from his class to earn a letter as a true freshman. The junior is now starting at outside linebacker for the Spartans and is tied for second on the team with safety Montae Nicholson with 19 tackles heading into the game at Indiana on Saturday night.
Some players get the chance to learn as they play as a freshman. Others will redshirt that season, a term meaning a player has been a member of the team in every way except to play in competitive games. The NCAA allows athletes to take five years to complete four seasons of playing eligibility, with exceptions made for season-ending injuries that can mean an extra season of eligibility. That’s been the case for linebacker Ed Davis and offensive lineman Brandon Clemons this year. Once a player plays in a game, even for a single down, he cannot be redshirted under NCAA rules.
Who gets redshirted and how that decision is made differs from player to player. Some players come in and show they are ready to contribute right away whether it be on offense, defense or special teams. Some aren’t quite ready physically or perhaps there is a glut of players at their particular position.
There are 13 freshmen listed on the Michigan State depth chart this week. Some are playing, while others will be redshirted.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and his staff have been working on those questions since the start of preseason camp. In the case of wide receiver Donnie Corley there was no hesitancy in putting him in right away. Corley leads the team with 189 receiving yards on 10 catches with 1 touchdown. Defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk has played in all three games, while defensive ends Josh King and Auston Robertson played for the first time this season last week against Wisconsin.
“No. 1 is giving them the opportunity because they deserved it as they’ve gone through preseason,” said defensive line coach Ron Burton. “They’re strong enough and big enough and they’ve shown the ability to work against good people and they had that opportunity last week.”
Quarterback Messiah deWeaver will redshirt barring injury. He is fourth on the depth chart behind starter Tyler O’Connor (who redshirted his freshman season), junior Damion Terry and redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke.
Linebacker Andrew Dowell played in 13 games and led the Spartans with 10 tackles on special teams last season as a freshman. His twin brother David, a defensive back, redshirted last season.
“My brother and I have had some talks. He gave me some perspective from that side and I gave him some perspective from this side,” said Dowell. “He told me he had to take a step back and you have to go at practice a little bit different. Every day you’re working towards, not next year but you’re trying to better yourself overall versus better yourself for that week. It’s a little difference.”
Redshirt players will oftentimes be used on the scout teams, playing the role of that week’s opponent. Going from being a high school star worthy of being recruited by a top Division I program to playing a scout team role on that team isn’t easy on the psyche but it can be beneficial in the long run. Not every player develops at the same pace.
Middle linebacker Riley Bullough redshirted his freshman season. He was named tri-captain this season and played in 43 consecutive games with 16 starts before an injury forced him to miss the Wisconsin game.
Whether a player redshirts or not, the process is about making sure he becomes as good as he can be by the time he leaves Michigan State.
“It’s an honor (to play as a freshman) because you get to play with those guys that were in that senior class and learn from them not only as a scout team player but being able to play next to them really taught me a lot,” said Frey. “I had played pretty well throughout the spring, learned the defense and then as fall camp came around I was on all of the special teams as a one or a two. Throughout the camp I moved my way up and I was ones on pretty much every special teams except for field goals, so I kind of expected to play as a freshman after that.”