Southern California Coach Pete Carroll isn't into coddling or grooming. His philosophy for his Trojans is fairly simple. Age, like a fine wine? Nope. Play, like a fine freshman.

"We're going to play anybody who can help us win," Carroll says. "If a kid's good enough, he'll be in there."

For the most part, that seems to be the prevailing philosophy these days. At Oklahoma and Tennessee, at Miami and USC, wait-and-see has been replaced by "see how he plays." Freshmen are walking onto campus and playing immediately.

"Kids are just better prepared than they used to be," said Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer, who is playing a pair of freshmen, Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer, at quarterback.

But the prominence of those freshmen, and scores of others playing in more obscure spots such as special teams, comes at a time when the NCAA is strongly considering passing legislation that would grant football players the right to play a fifth year. In the proposal, which has already become known as "five to play five" and could be approved in April, the "redshirt" year -- when players practice with the team, go to class, and even dress on home game days -- would become a thing of the past.

That's all quite different than the position of such groups as the Knight Commission on College Athletics, which argues that freshmen shouldn't be eligible at all.

Thus, three forces existing simultaneously, pushing in a variety of directions: those freshmen excelling right now; those who believe all freshmen should be allowed to ease into the lineup by playing their first year on campus but still having four more years of eligibility; and those who believe things should revert to how they were prior to 1972, when freshmen weren't eligible.

"I think there is some benefit for kids to be able to spend a year getting their feet on the ground academically," Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe said.

With that at least partially in mind, Grobe has tried to redshirt as much of his freshman classes as possible. That's partly because the Demon Deacons aren't typically recruiting the same players who end up at Florida State or Texas.

"We're trying to get to the point here where we give our players the four best years of football they can play," Grobe said. "We just assume the first year's not going to be one of those years."

But Grobe wouldn't mind throwing a few of those freshmen out there at home games on special teams, as long as it didn't cost them a full year of eligibility. Either way, the idea is the same: win. Do it with young players. Do it with old players. But do it.

"I'm not going to hold a guy out who could help us win," Carroll said. "That's not fair to anyone involved."

-- Barry Svrluga

Calvin Johnson, Erik Ainge and Darius Walker