Freshmen taking reins for the Bulls

Redshirt freshman Nick Roberts had USF’s second-most tackles (10) and a 61-yard interception against UConn. He’s second on the team in total tackles with 46. ORACLE PHOTO/SAM NEWLON

In college football, it’s widely known that freshmen players have to prove themselves to see the field on gameday. Because older players are more experienced and battle-tested, the upperclassmen are usually the ones who earn starting roles.

In Saturday’s game alone, however, No. 21 USF started five freshmen or redshirt freshmen, with several others having an impact in the game — including the Bulls’ leading rusher, Johnny Ford.

“You’ve got a bunch of young, talented players playing and they’re playing well,” coach Charlie Strong said Saturday. “We’re playing good enough to win, but we can play much better.”

There are always some young players on each team that stand out, however. For No. 1 Alabama, two freshmen have earned starting roles, cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr., as well as wide receiver and return man Jaylen Waddle.

No. 10 UCF starts just one redshirt freshman — right guard Cole Schneider.

Ford led USF with 164 rushing yards and three touchdowns Saturday. Redshirt freshman Randall St. Felix led all receivers with 123 yards and the Bulls’ lone receiving touchdown, but the success of the freshman doesn’t stop on the offensive side of the ball.

Terrence Horne Jr. tied an NCAA record earlier this season against Georgia Tech with two kickoff returns for touchdowns. Though, his season was cut short when he tore his ACL in practice.

Redshirt freshmen Mekhi LaPoint and Nick Roberts led the team with 11 and 10 total tackles Saturday, respectively. Roberts tacked on his second interception of the season in the fourth quarter with a 61-yard return that set up a quick Ford rushing touchdown.

“LaPoint and Roberts are two guys that we’ve put in the lineup and they’ve played very well for us,” Strong said. “They can make plays, they can tackle people, they can hit them and they can find the football.”

Bentlee Sanders and Vincent Davis also made it on Strong’s list of notable freshmen on the team. On Saturday, freshman Brad Cecil started at center alongside fellow freshman Donovan Jennings, who has started the past three games.

With all the young players on the team, however, there are bound to be miscues.

“When you have young guys, you’re going to make a bunch of mistakes,” Strong said. “They just haven’t been battle-tested enough to where they can just go play. You have older guys who understand [it’s time to shut this team down] and as [the freshmen] continue to grow, that attitude is going to come to them.”

One of the older guys on the team is Jordan Cronkrite, who played for Florida before transferring to USF and sitting out a year. Even though he’s only played seven games in a USF jersey, he still has some more experience than true freshman Ford.

“I look up to [Cronkrite] because he’s a great role model,” Ford said. “He’s someone any kid would want to meet and any kid would like because of his work ethic. Anything you name, he’s going to go after it.”

Cronkrite said that he and Ford keep each other motivated throughout the week because they are working harder due to injuries affecting other running backs.

“We give each other tips, I give him some, he gives me some,” Cronkrite said. “I tell him to be himself…there’s a lot of potential in him and great talent. He’s got a small frame, you saw what he did tonight. I’m really proud of him.”

The five-foot-five 168 pound Ford has some tips for Cronkrite that are a little different.

“[I tell him] ‘let’s go’,” Ford said. “This has been a great opportunity that I’m getting.”

These freshmen and redshirt freshmen are all part of Strong’s first two recruiting classes — many of which have figured into prominent roles on the team.