MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — With 58 freshmen, Minnesota leads the FBS with 51.7 percent of players on the roster in their first year of eligibility.
Nine of them are starters, including seven on offense, to make this season for the Gophers all about growth. While losing five of their first six Big Ten games, outscored by an average of 43-26 during those contests, the Gophers felt their share of pain.
With true freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad injured and struggling, coach P.J. Fleck made a slight upgrade in experience last month by replacing him with redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan. The Gophers started the final quarter of their season in stride with a 41-10 victory over Purdue that served as a potential sign this teenager-driven offense has matured. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman, running back Mohamed Ibrahim and right tackle Daniel Faalele are all true freshmen who have stood out.
"You're almost like, 'I'm not sure what's going to come out of that tunnel at times just because everything is so new," Fleck said recently. "Everything is for the first time with a lot of these young men."
Such widespread youth movements typically don't produce immediate success, of course, and one of the teams Minnesota is tied for last place with in the Big Ten West Division is Illinois. Not coincidentally, the Illini have the fewest seniors in the FBS with only eight on the roster and have played 18 true freshmen.
Nebraska is also at the bottom of that division, though there's no question which freshman in the conference this year came the most game-ready: Huskers quarterback Adrian Martinez.
Despite sitting out his senior season of high school with an injury, Martinez already has six games with at least 300 yards of total offense to tie the school record.
"Every week he gets a little more comfortable with the offense. Every week he's making a few more better decisions," coach Scott Frost said, adding: "There's not going to be anybody better than him once he gets as good as he can be."
Martinez is the first Huskers true freshman at any position with 500-plus rushing yards in a season since David Horne in 2002, and his 2,212 passing yards through 10 games is already eighth on Nebraska's single-season list. Martinez is fourth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency.
"I still feel like I haven't scratched the surface," Martinez said.
Right behind Martinez on the major-impact scale for Big Ten rookies is Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore.
He leads the FBS with an average of 8.2 receptions per game and is third with an average of 172 all-purpose yards per game. Moore and Martinez have each won or shared the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award three times.
Here's a look at some of the other freshmen around the conference who are making a strong impression:
— ISAIAH BOWSER, Northwestern running back:
Elevated to a more prominent role after Jeremy Larkin had to halt his career because of a spinal condition, Bowser totaled 483 rushing yards and four touchdowns over the last four games to help the Wildcats clinch the Big Ten West Division title. He's the first true Northwestern freshman with back-to-back 100-yard games on the ground since Justin Jackson in 2014.
— JAKE FERGUSON, Wisconsin tight end:
The grandson of former Badgers coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez who grew up in Madison just a few miles from campus, Ferguson has been connected to the program from birth. After redshirting in 2017, he leads the team with 27 receptions and is second with 379 yards. He's been targeted 20 times on third or fourth down, with 15 catches for 212 yards and 11 conversions.
— K.J. HAMLER, Penn State wide receiver:
Selected as a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award that goes to the most versatile player in the FBS, Hamler is second in the Big Ten with 569 total return yards and sixth with an average of 16.73 yards per catch. He had a 93-yard touchdown reception against Ohio State, the second-longest play from scrimmage in program history.
— ANTHONY MCFARLAND, Maryland running back:
McFarland ran for a Terrapins freshman record 210 yards against Indiana last week after senior Ty Johnson left with an injury, and also set the Maryland single-season freshman record with 724 rushing yards after taking a redshirt in 2017.
— STEVIE SCOTT, Indiana running back:
Each of the last four featured ball-carriers for the Hoosiers have reached the NFL, including standouts Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard, and Scott has taken a big first step in replacing the injured Cole Gest. Scott is second among FBS true freshmen with 159 attempts and 791 rushing yards. The powerful 6-foot-2, 236-pound Scott has been adept and pushing the pile forward, with a cumulative loss of only 13 yards.
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