Most freshmen football players spend their first year of high school on the sidelines, playing on the scout team or junior varsity and being used as tackling dummies for the upperclassmen.
Verdigris seniors Austin Woods, Kyle Pickens and Toby Willis bypassed the apprentice stage and were thrown into the fire as freshmen starters, whether they were ready for it or not.
“Our freshmen think they have it bad now,” joked Woods. “Back then, we had it worse. We weren’t any good, but I feel like we’re pretty good now.”
“I didn’t want it because I was way too young to know or understand anything,” admitted Pickens. “But they needed me to go in there, so they just kind of threw me in there and I had to figure out what to do on my own.”
“It was interesting being 15 or so and getting tossed in there with all those 18-year-olds that were pretty much bigger than me,” admitted Willis. “It was kind of a scary deal at first but I got used to it.”
Playing freshmen isn’t an ideal situation for any coach, but sometimes depth is an issue at smaller schools.
“To be real honest, normally when you’re playing freshmen you’re not having a great season,” said Cardinals head coach Travis East. “I would have loved to have been able for them to develop another year, but we didn’t have a lot of depth so they ended up stepping in there and playing. Now they’re not young anymore. They’re seniors and it’s time to go win with them.”
The Cardinals are primed to make a postseason run this season and a big reason for that is the lumps they took as freshmen. Woods has even parlayed that experience into a Division I scholarship.
“Growing up, I could always see myself being a four year starter,” said the mammoth 6’6″, 280-pound lineman who has committed to Arkansas State.” If I hadn’t been thrown in there my freshman year, I wouldn’t be the same player I am now.”
“Austin is a huge man,” said East. “He’s an aggressive lineman who really gets after it. He’s a great leader for our team.”
“One hundred percent it made me better,” added Pickens, who plays defensive end and right guard. “It made me figure out things at a younger age, figure out techniques and stuff to use all four years I’ve played.”
“Kyle is a great kid who works extremely hard,” remarked the fourth-year Cardinals coach. “He’s smart in the classroom. He’s a hard worker who just plays hard for our team.”
While Woods and Pickens are manning the trenches, Willis is being counted on to provide an offensive spark from his wide receiver position. He accumulated nearly 900 yards receiving last season and scored 11 touchdowns.
“Toby fights for the ball better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” claimed East. “If it’s thrown in his direction he’s going to go get it. ”
While they reminisce and joke now about what it was like to be starting as freshmen, they all agree their high school careers have flown by in an instant.
“It’s insane how fast you go from freshman year to senior year, said Woods. “You kind of take it for granted. You get to your senior year and you go, ‘this is it.'”
Catch the next Ford Game of the Week where Stilwell plays at Verdigris on Friday, September 20th, at 7:00 p.m. on YurView Cox Channel 93. This game will also be streamed on Yurview.com.