Freshman Gridders Play Big Roles

Compas, Skelton, Hughes, Fleiszer, Drakos, Smith and Hewitt Help Lead Team

Okay, time for some Harvard Football Jeopardy. The answer: Jeff Compas, Colby Skelton, Jason Hughes, Tim Fleiszer, Mark Drakos, Chris Smith and Brady Hewitt.

The question: Who are the seven freshmen who have had a significant impact this season on the varsity football team?

As the 3-2 Harvard squad returns to Ivy League play this Saturday at Princeton, it finds itself in an unprecedented situation--relying heavily on the contributions of freshmen.

The first-year students aren't playing bit parts in this production, either. Compas leads the team in interceptions, with three, and has started all season at corner-back. Skelton has served as a kick returner and key wide receiver, snagging 11 passes with a team-high 18.7 yards per catch. Drakos has six catches of his own.

Fleiszer has risen from depth-chart obscurity to start at full-back.

Hughes starts on the defensive line, and Chris Smith will join him there for extensive stretches during the Princeton game. Hewitt handles all of the Crimson's kickoffs.

If not for a season-ending knee injury against Columbia, an eighth member of the class of '98, Brendan Bibro, would be joining his mates on this surprisingly long list.

What gives? Why is Harvard suddenly playing freshmen at positions and in situations where only veterans trod before?

The answer is simple: Ivy League schools voted two years ago to allow freshmen onto their varsity squads for the first time ever.

This season marks Harvard's initial foray into the Great Freshman Experiment. And under Coach Tim Murphy, the best players play. Right now, seven freshmen happen to merit that honor.

Don't think that they're not happy about it.

"It's great," said Hughes, an Ohio high school star who was recruited by Boston College, Stanford, Northwestern and Duke.

"When I came in, it was a little overwhelming," he said. "The step up in intensity from high school was really big. But the guys have tutored me really well, and I feel like a normal part of the team. It's a great situation."

"I just go out there and do whatever I can do, whatever helps the team," Compas said. "It's all about winning, and I'm glad I can do my part."

None of the players expected to step in as quickly as he did, however.

"I was kind of surprised, because coming in, you don't think of yourself as one of the one or two players who'll step up right away," said Fleiszer, a Montreal native who prepped for two years at Choate before coming to Harvard.

"I wasn't sure that I would be able to pick up the system right away, especially with the new coaching staff and all," Drakos added.

According to Murphy, under ideal conditions there wouldn't be that many freshmen in the lineup.

"I'm not real excited about [the large number of freshmen], actually," he said. "I believe in merit, so I play our best players, but it's a tough situation.

"They're still freshmen, and we all have to remember that they'll make mistakes. The teams that win consistently on Saturday are usually the ones dominated by seniors and juniors, and it'll be a while before we get to that point."

At the same time, of course, Murphy doesn't hesitate to heap praise on the freshmen who have filled critical gaps on his first Harvard team.

"We're very pleased with these student-athletes, and we have great hopes for them in the coming years," he said.

Apparently, the players share his hope. Visions of championships dance in their heads.

Said Drakos, a New Yorker who caught three balls last Saturday against Colgate: "Me and all the other freshmen have one goal [for our time at Harvard], and that's to get a ring--to win the Ivy League title."