Youngsters playing key roles for Mavs this season
Colorado Mesa University is going through a transition process, and with it comes growing pains.
The football team is experiencing that right along with the institution.
The Mavericks (2-4, 1-3 RMAC) are starting more freshmen this year than coach Joe Ramunno has in his previous 13 years — possibly in those 13 years combined.
Seven freshmen or redshirt freshmen have started the past four weeks. Another dozen freshmen and seven sophomores are seeing ample playing time off the bench.
“It’s always been my philosophy to redshirt freshmen because it lets them acclimate to college and being away from home,” Ramunno said. “We’re in a situation now, you never know what’s going to happen. A guy could get injured and not play. Our whole thing now is if you’re the best guy, you’ve got to play.”
Mesa is starting a freshman or redshirt freshman at the most noticeable and exposed positions, quarterback and cornerback.
“It’s in the positions that are the most visual,” Ramunno said. “The growing pains happen in the secondary and at quarterback that everybody sees. That’s part of the growing process, but these guys are getting better every week.
“Those two positions are confidence. The only way you get confidence is through experience. Those guys have a great attitude.”
Freshman cornerback Jordan Price has noticed how glaring mistakes can be in those positions.
“If we mess up, everybody points the finger at us,” Price said. “If a defensive lineman messes up, it’s OK. You can overlook that. If a corner or safety gets beat for a touchdown, they point the finger at you.”
Ramunno has started a redshirt freshman at quarterback since the third game of the season.
Steve Romero, who Ramunno tabbed as the starter this week against Colorado School of Mines, started against nationally ranked Nebraska-Kearney.
“I haven’t played for a while, it was a rust-breaker, honestly,” Romero said. “For the first snap, I had heavy butterflies, but after that, I’ve got to be the leader, so I tried to shut that out and play.”
Romero injured his right shoulder in that game and was out two weeks before returning last week to lead the Mavericks to a 22-3 victory over Fort Lewis. That win was the first since the young guns, Romero and Chris Henderson, took over at quarterback.
“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Romero said. “When you’re doing good, everyone praises you. When you struggle, people start to criticize you and you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, but the rewards outweigh the risks. That’s what makes you want to be good.”
Henderson got his first taste of college football in the season opener against Humboldt State in relief of Robert Felberg.
“I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been playing football in my life,” Henderson said. “Once I completed a pass, it was like a normal game to me.”
Henderson made his first start at N.M. Highlands, throwing for a season-high 374 yards, only to see Highlands rally to win.
Henderson earned the start the next week against Western New Mexico, but had three fumbles and threw three interceptions in another loss.
“In high school, I could pretty much do everything off my athletic ability,” Henderson said. “You can’t do that here. You have to be mentally ready and physically ready.”
Three freshmen start on defense, including cornerbacks Price and Travis McRae, and opposing teams have noticed. A third, Carter Janicki, goes in on passing downs.
Right off the bat, Price and McRae faced an experienced Humboldt State University team and quarterback that picked them apart for 381 yards in the air.
“It was very hard,” said Price of the first game against Humboldt. “They have great wide receivers. Those were the best wide receivers we’ve faced so far.”
The Mavericks’ defense gave up more than 300 yards passing in the next three games, including 413 to Nebraska-Kearney and experienced quarterback Jake Spitzlberger.
“There is a big difference coming from high school to college and the competitive level facing a quarterback that can read the schemes and coverages,” McRae said. “There’s always going to be mistakes, but it’s just a matter of overcoming the challenges throughout the season and working on getting better.”
The freshmen have begun to turn the tables and make some plays.
McRae has two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown in the Mavericks’ 52-30 victory over Dixie State (Utah) College.
“It’s our first time playing at the college level,” Price said. “Your freshman year, you’re going to make mistakes. As we grow up and get older, I feel we’ll be two of the more dominant corners in the conference.”