P.J. Fleck isn't shy about playing true freshmen, even if it's just to give them a taste of college football before redshirting.
Some of them, though, are ready to help the Gophers football team win sooner than others.
Running back Mar'Keise "Bucky" Irving and cornerback Justin Walley are the latest true freshmen making an impact for the Gophers (2-1), who host Bowling Green on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium.
"Playing as a true freshman is very difficult," Fleck said. "We're playing some youthful players who are very talented. They're just scratching the surface of what they're going to be."
In 2019 and 2020, the Gophers played 27 true freshmen combined, including 15 during an 11-win season two years ago. Three games into the 2021 season, only three true freshmen have participated. The other is wide receiver Brady Boyd.
Saturday could be a chance for more true freshmen to see the field since they can play up to four games and still redshirt, maintaining a year of eligibility under NCAA rules.
"Being able to come in and play as a true freshman is a big challenge," senior cornerback Coney Durr said. "It's fun to see a younger guy getting after it. It kind of fuels me up a little bit more."
Irving had a momentum-swinging 41-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter of his season debut in the Sept. 11 win against Miami (Ohio).
That was just the beginning for Irving. In last weekend's 30-0 win at Colorado, the 5-10, 190-pound Illinois native had the most carries (15) and rushing yards (89) in a game for a true freshman Gophers tailback since Bryce Williams in 2018.
"That guy can flat-out play ball," said Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan, who prefers to use Irving's new nickname "Bucko" to avoid anything that sounds like the mascot for border rival Wisconsin.
No matter what nickname is used for Irving, Fleck said he was glad to give him a chance to play some "meaningful football" the last two games, especially with star tailback Mo Ibrahim out for the season. Irving's now the likely No. 2 back behind leading rusher Trey Potts.
"He's a very talented individual," Fleck said. "Just because you're gifted doesn't make you a great football player just yet. But he is a really good football player. The more he plays the better he's going to be."
Walley, the Mississippi Class 6A Mr. Football last year, was the most talked about true freshman in fall camp. He made his debut in the season opener vs. Ohio State. and last week he had two tackles and a pass breakup on a huge hit vs. Colorado.
"He plays with grit, plays with a lot of toughness," Durr said of Walley. "He picks up fast and corrects things that he maybe messed up on. He just loves to get better. That's why he has progressed as he has the past few weeks."
Fleck has raved about the potential of his 2021 recruiting class, with Walley, Irving, former Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, Arizona defensive back Steven Ortiz, and former Shakopee defensive lineman Deven Eastern. But Irving has been the only one of Minnesota's four four-star recruits to play through three games.
With a veteran squad this season, Fleck's not jumping to play a true freshman just because that player's talent is obvious. A "great example" is freshman safety Darius Green from Georgia, the coach said.
"Darius Green is going to be a really good player here," Fleck said. "I'd love to redshirt him."
Not playing as true freshmen didn't hinder the development of current seniors like Ibrahim, Tanner Morgan, Boye Mafe, and Chris Autman-Bell, who all redshirted in 2017.
But one year later, Rashod Bateman, an eventual first-round draft pick, jumped in as a true freshman and finished as the Gophers' second-leading receiver. Fellow true freshmen Jordan Howden and Terrell Smith also started a combined 14 games in the secondary.
Safety Tyler Nubin, kicker Michael Lantz, and long snapper Brady Weeks were true freshmen contributors on the Gophers' 2019 team that beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Last year, punter Mark Crawford and receiver Daniel Jackson also made an impact as true freshmen.
"We want to play these guys in four [years]," Fleck said. "I think it's harder to do that than it's ever been, but if we've got guys who can play, we're going to play 'em."