When Martin Rucker started at tight end for Missouri against Arkansas State, he did so with no previous experience.
Although some might succumb to nervousness in their first college game, Rucker played undaunted, scoring a touchdown on the first pass thrown to him.
After the game, Rucker said he wasn’t nervous partly because of the work he had been through, not only the weekly preparation leading up to the game, but also the preparation that had begun during Rucker’s redshirt season.
Rucker, though, isn’t the only redshirt freshman to succeed and play a big role under coach Gary Pinkel.
When a player redshirts, which allows a player to retain his first year of eligibility if the player does not play, he can focus on improving and adapting to the college lifestyle without having to worry about opposing teams.
Wide receiver Jason Ray, who redshirted last season, said he matured during his redshirt season.
“I think I’ve grown a lot. Just getting used to the speed of the game, really, is what I’ve really excelled on,” Ray said. “When I first got here, it was a fast pace the first two-a-days after I got here.
“I’ve grown a lot. I got a chance to academically get acclimated, as well athletically. I’m getting into the offense. I’m out there reacting now, more than anything. I’m not thinking as much, so I think I’ve grown a lot.”
Ray had an impressive fall practice and worked his way to second on the depth chart at one of the wide receiver spots. He also made his college debut against Arkansas State, making one catch for three yards.
Ray said the biggest adjustment he had to make was to learn to pay attention to detail. Detail work is one of Pinkel’s trademarks.
“Being a young guy, straight from high school, it’s a lot different,” Ray said. “In college ball, you have to read a lot more as defenses go.
“The focus on that detail is what you have to get, and I think I’m getting there.”
Most of the freshmen who come to Missouri take a redshirt because Pinkel said he wants to play physically and mentally mature players.
“I’m very cautious of what I do with it, for the upside that you get when a young man is 21, 22 years old rather than being 18 years old,” Pinkel said. “The maturity level is something, I think, that you feel. You can see it. You can see they practice when they’re fatigued. You can see how they learn, a lot of those things.”
As a result, making a recruit take a redshirt season does not necessarily mean the player lacks talent but might lack necessary maturity.
Rucker is another player who impressed Pinkel during the fall practices. Rucker said he approached his redshirt season with determination.
“Every day I was coming in and focusing to get better and not just to go through it,” he said. “That was probably the main thing was focusing to get better and not just go through it.”
Quarterback Brad Smith broke on to a national scene when he was a redshirt freshman, but said he benefited from his redshirt season.
“From what I learned then and on the field now (knowing) what works and what you need to do to win, it definitely helps a player out,” Smith said.
“I think it’s hard to quantify anything because (you grow) so much in so many ways. Emotionally and physically as well as on the field, you just learn so much. Just by playing on the scout team and getting reps, just being around everything, you just get more comfortable.”
Smith opened his career with a dominant performance against Illinois. He had 290 total yards and accounted for one touchdown in the Tigers’ 33-20 win.
This season, several teams around the nation, including Tennessee and Michigan, have started true freshmen at quarterback, and after watching them, Smith wasn’t sure whether he could handle it.
“Brad was a redshirt freshman, and that’s a huge difference,” Pinkel said. “I was talking with Brad the other week about the backups and asked him if he thought he could’ve played as a true freshman, and Brad just said he couldn’t even imagine how difficult that would be.”
Offensive tackle Tyler Luellen, a redshirt freshman who replaced Rob Droege in the starting lineup, said he used his time as a redshirt to advance mentally and physically.
“You come in from high school, and every coach teaches a new thing,” Luellen said. “You get here, and you’re basically starting over. You have to be taught everything again the right way. I got into the books. I started studying the plays just in case this year, which it did happen. I had to come in and fill a spot.”