BATON ROUGE, La. — The latest performances of Georgia's Nick Chubb and LSU's Leonard Fournette have firmly established them as players to watch in the Southeastern Conference — for the rest of this season and perhaps the next two.
Both ran for about 140 yards, serving as examples that freshmen are flourishing in the mighty SEC.
All across the league, coaches at programs ranging from the top to the bottom of the standings are showing they're willing to let recruits fresh out of high school compete for major roles — and many are showing they deserve it.
Chubb's rise was on the sudden side because he was predictably placed in a backup role behind Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley. But when Gurley was suspended indefinitely last week because of accusations he violated NCAA rules by signing autographs for money, Chubb was thrust into a starting role. He delivered with 143 yards on 38 carries in a 34-0 rout of Missouri, letting fans of 10th-ranked know that the Bulldogs' running game could continue to be a force for the immediate and long-term future.
"I knew going into the game that obviously we can still win with Chubb in there," Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason said, adding that the only thing he worried about was Chubb's durability. "The only thing I remember is him taking some hard licks and getting back up. He's just a tough cat. A lot of times, you don't really appreciate what a guy is doing in the SEC as an 18-year-old rookie who just graduated from high school, carrying the team on his back."
At Texas A&M, defensive end Myles Garrett has 7 1/2 sacks, which is an Aggies freshman record. Speedy Noil is a fixture in the No. 21 Aggies' passing game, with 27 catches for 360 yards and three touchdowns. He is also the Aggies primary punt returner.
"I don't bring guys here to stand next to me on the sideline. The best guys play," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said recently. "Experience is relative. Just because you're a junior, if you haven't played, what kind of experience is that? We're recruiting at a level where guys are coming into this program to compete and play."
At No. 3 Mississippi, freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes is coming off a two-sack performance at Texas A&M last weekend.
The leading punter in the SEC is Alabama freshman JK Scott, with an average of 46.7-yards per punt. The No. 7 Crimson Tide is also starting a freshman at left tackle, though the 6-foot-6, 323-pound Cameron Robinson hardly looks like one.
Rebuilding teams with newer coaches are bound to have more youth in the lineup. That holds true with second-year coach Butch Jones at Tennessee.
Freshman Jalen Hurd is the No. 1 running back and one of five true freshmen starters on offense, along with tight end Ethan Wolf, who has 15 catches for 134 yards. Already, Tennessee is looking more competitive, raising hopes that the Volunteers will be a rising force in the SEC East in coming seasons.
"It's exciting to see how much time we have to get bigger and stronger and faster and smarter and see what things are going to happen," Wolf said.
Freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams has helped spark Kentucky's resurgence under second-year coach Mark Stoops with 91.6 all-purpose yards per game as a rusher, receiver and returner.
"He definitely helps us and gives us that added dimension of a home run guy," Stoops said.
But even at LSU, where Les Miles is in his 10th season, freshmen have risen to prominence after several top Tigers left early for the NFL, including 1,000-yard receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Now true freshman Malachi Dupre is the Tigers' second leading receiver in yards (257) and touchdowns (4).
Early production was expected of Fournette, one of the most sought-after running back recruits in the nation. He needed a few games to adjust to the speed and size of SEC defenses, but his performance at Florida indicated he's comfortable with that now.
He ran right over Gators defenders for the first of his two scoring runs last Saturday night, and now leads all LSU rushers with 504 yards and 6 TDs, giving him a chance to approach 1,000 yards rushing in his first year out of high school.
"Those freshmen that come to our place, we expect you to make a very significant contribution and to play a big role," Miles said. "It's kind of how we're built right now, with the early leaving to the NFL and the absolute requirement that that freshmen classes come in with the ability athletically and emotionally to step on to the field and do those things."