At a vast majority of Division I football programs, highly-touted freshmen are given the luxury of seeing playing time from the day they step foot in the locker room.
But in the D-II ranks, especially at Fort Hays State University, the first year on campus is all but guaranteed to result in a redshirt season, making the following spring a crucial time to showcase development.
“When you go through fall camp, those first few weeks you’re trying to see if they’re ready to play now,” FHSU head coach Chris Brown said. “Do they need to be redshirted? Are they gonna help us on special teams? How much are they gonna play for us? If they’re only gonna play a couple snaps, we’re gonna redshirt them.”
Last fall, 26 freshmen underwent the rigors of fall camp under Brown before receiving redshirts — no freshmen played a snap in 2015. More than three months of life on the scout team are done, and the few weeks of spring practice is a big time for Brown and his coaching staff to evaluate the prospects fighting for snaps in 2016.
“You don’t really get to see them (during the season) … but you’re still evaluating them, hearing things from coaches on how they’re doing,” Brown said. “This spring is huge for a lot of these young guys to see where they’re at in our program. All of those guys should be on special teams next year. We’re hoping to get some of these guys starters for us, or at least give us reps during the game so we can stay fresh throughout the game.”
Limited spots are vacant from graduated seniors, but many freshmen are staking their claim to be in the mix in the early stages of the new season.
On the defensive line, which returns everybody, Brown sees all four freshmen in the running for playing time, including La Crosse product Sheldon Schmidt. Joining the local prospect is Romello Burke (Sarasota, Fla.), Dylan Kelly (Ellicott, Colo.) and Kiel Simas (McKinney, Texas).
Wyatt Parker, a sophomore-to-be from Blue Springs, serves as an example for linemen looking to make a splash. He served as the primary long snapper and played each game, which included an interception against Pittsburg State.
At wideout, area kids Hayden Kreutzer (Hays High) and Andrew Jay (La Crosse) are said to be in the fold with Layne Bieberle (Claflin-Central Plains), who caught the eyes of the defensive starters all fall with eye-popping catches on the scout team. Cimarron’s A.J. Cooper, a 6-foot-5 tight end, has also wowed coaches in the early parts of spring practice.
Jeron Caraway (Topeka) will battle for snaps in a loaded linebacking corps, but a pair of intriguing prospects are catching Brown’s eyes in the secondary.
Tanner Hoekman, a defensive back from Abilene, has started the spring in place of Daniel Lindsey, the all-conference bandit currently chasing his NFL dream. He was one of a few players teetering on the line of seeing playing time as a true freshman, though he is seeing the benefits of taking in games from the sideline.
“That redshirt year, it really helped me, actually,” Hoekman said. “I got a lot bigger and I got down all the plays and stuff so I could figure everything out. … It was pretty awesome.”
Hoekman, along with Denver’s Shannon Long, are seen by Brown as guys with potential to see the field frequently in the coming year.
“Watching Hoekman right now — and even Shannon Long — those kids are really picking things up really fast,” Brown said. “They’re understanding the game really well, they’re understanding their job and what they’ve supposed to do. Just seeing the maturity from year one till now of how they’ve really improved and understand what we’re doing is tremendous. I wanna see those kids getting better through these next 13 practices, and hopefully those two kids are guys that are playing a lot next year.”
Hoekman twice received all-state honors as a standout skill player and defensive back for the Cowboys, totaling nearly 2,500 yards of offense in his final two years of prep football.
Now, with the spotlight on him, he has a much different mentality that his days spent prepping the first team during the fall.
“It’s a little bit more pressure,” Hoekman said. “It’s just a lot more focus. You’ve gotta be more focused and stuff when you come to practice and just being ready for it, preparing myself everyday for practice. … I just gotta keep thinking that’s my spot and I’m not gonna give it up.”
The Tigers have three more weeks of official team practice remaining this spring leading up to the 2016 Spring Kickoff on April 16. Though early, Brown is sure his loaded freshman class will play a role in whatever success may come this fall.
“A lot of those guys are a big part of how we’re gonna be next year,” Brown said.