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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson drops to throw as BYU and Utah play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.

PROVO — In the annals of BYU football history, the 2018 season may be remembered as The Year of the Freshmen.

The Cougars have played 26 freshmen, including 17 true freshmen, while 14 freshmen have started games, including five true freshmen.

Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson leads the team in passing with 1,261 yards and eight touchdowns and freshman running back Lopini Katoa leads the team in rushing with 423 yards and eight touchdowns.

Freshmen have accounted for nearly 50 percent of BYU’s scoring total this year — 152 of 305 points.

Meanwhile, center James Empey and left tackle Brady Christensen, two more freshmen, help anchor the offensive line, having started every game this season. Another freshman, Keanu Saleapaga, started eight games at left guard.

BYU’s placekicker, Skyler Southam is also a freshman, and in the last three contests, a freshman has started at right corner — D’Angelo Mandell (two games) and Keenan Ellis (one game).

What explains this freshmen phenomenon?

“A lot of them are playing and they’re competitive. Allowing the competition to take over and when they compete in practice, they get rewarded with playing time in the game,” coach Kalani Sitake said of the contributions of the freshman class. “That’s something a lot of guys are looking forward to. I applaud the coaches for trusting the freshmen and going with the talent if they can do it. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to compete and regardless of their age or their experience, the best will play.”

Was it a matter of youngsters emerging because of a lack of talent among more experienced players? Or did coaches have an eye toward the future?

First-year offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes explained that practices are an open competition.

“We would only play them if they had earned the right to play in front of someone else. We wouldn’t do it strictly because we’re building towards the future,” he said. “In every one of those cases, I would say those guys have earned it. It’s not a situation where there were three or four guys that were similar in ability to produce and we chose to go with younger guys because of a youth movement. That wasn’t the case at all. The younger guys have proven themselves.”

Quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick reiterated that first-year players have been given a chance to prove themselves in practice.

“The freshmen that are playing just earned the right to play. We didn’t really plan on it, necessarily. I think all of us thought (freshman tight end) Dallin Holker might have a chance to play this year,” he said. “That’s just one example. But most of those earned the right to play. Some of them earned the chance early in the year and some earned the chance at midseason. We just come out every day and practice … if they perform in a game, their role increases. It just so happens that several freshmen did that.”

One of the benefits of extra bowl practices is giving younger players reps. Well, many younger players, namely the freshmen, are already in prominent roles.

True freshman wide receiver Gunner Romney, who played in nine games but was limited due to injury, has enjoyed seeing so many freshmen on the roster take on big roles. It bodes well for the future since, he said, most of these freshmen will return next fall and provide continuity.

“It’s been awesome for that many freshmen to be able to step up immediately and play and contribute to the team in a big way. It shows that this program is building and we’re progressing and we’re on the climb the next couple of years,” Romney said. “It definitely helps to be able to develop that team chemistry and be able to play from our freshman year all the way up to senior year and go through four years together. It will definitely help us as a team to get closer and be a better team overall.”

Of course, the most high-profile freshman is Wilson, who took over for senior Tanner Mangum halfway through the season.

“As a receiver, that’s probably going to be my guy for the next three years that I’m here,” Romney said of Wilson. “The chemistry that we’ll build through the next three years and that we’ve been able to build so far this year, it’s exciting to see what we’ll be able to do.”

“The more you play together, the more you get on the same page and you get a rhythm,” Empey said. “It’s great to be able to play with guys and have that continuation. It’s great to play with the upperclassmen and the seniors because they bring a lot of experience and knowledge.”

Certainly, BYU has benefitted from the new NCAA rule that allows players to participate in up to four games in a season without burning a redshirt year.

“We have a lot of freshmen that are going to contribute in this (bowl) game because we’re allowed to redshirt them still,” Sitake said. “I’m thankful that the NCAA allows us to do that.”

True freshman cornerback Isaiah Herron has already played in four games and he won’t play in the bowl game in order to preserve his redshirt.

What has he learned this season?

“There’s a big gap between high school and college. I learned that you really have to invest in yourself,” Herron said. “Hard work is more important than anything else. I love everything I’ve been through because it’s taught me to put in the work and you’ll see the results.”

Empey said he’s grateful for the opportunity to receive so much valuable experience as a freshman.

“I’ve been happy to learn and grow this year and to figure things out,” he said. “It’s been a ride because I haven’t played football in a while with a mission and redshirting. It’s been a really fun season and I’m grateful to be here with such great guys.”

Empey replaced a four-year starter, Tejan Koroma.

“Last year was cool because I was able to be with Tejan and learn from him. He’s a good player and a great teammate,” he said. “It was cool to be able to step in and get a lot of help. There are a lot of guys that helped me out. There are a lot of guys on the O-line like Austin Hoyt and Tristen Hoge and Brady Christensen that are good leaders. It’s been nice to be able to step in and be a part of it.”

As for Wilson, he’s excited for the future — and for his first bowl experience.

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“I can’t wait to get into next year and this offseason and building as a team,” he said. “These guys are excited to finish this year strong.”

“I got a lot of high hopes for the guys that are in my class. I feel like we bonded together as freshmen,” Herron said. “We have a lot going for us in the future. All I have to say is, the sky’s the limit for us. We’ll be way more established than we are now. We’ll be who we want to be in the future.”

• • •

Idaho Potato Bowl

  • BYU (6-6) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)
  • Friday, 2 p.m. MST Albertsons Stadium
  • TV: ESPN
  • Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM