When you graduate almost every starter from your football team, it opens the door for young players to make their mark.

When you graduate almost every starter from your football team, it opens the door for young players to make their mark.

Typically, the players thrown into the fire are juniors or sophomores. Every so often, however, you come across freshmen who can make a difference as well.

That’s Ardmore’s scenario this season, as the Tigers have a ninth-grade class that has drawn rave reviews from coaches, and plenty of hype from an optimistic Ardmore fan base.

“I’m tickled to death with that class,” Ardmore coach Douglas Wendel said. “I’m tickled to death with the improvement I’m seeing.”

The talent has been hard to keep from varsity playing time, as running back/defensive back O.J. Walker earned his first start of his varsity career against Durant last week in the secondary. The 5-foot-7, 160-pounder has also contributed on special teams and in the backfield for the Tigers through three games.

The last time Wendel said he’s felt comfortable throwing a freshman into the fire as he did with Walker?

“Never,” said the second-year coach of the Tigers. “I’ve never done it in my life as an assistant or a head coach.

“(Against Durant) He did a great job. He had a couple of mistakes early, but he came back up and made a couple of big plays.”

Other freshmen that have gotten varsity snaps include Kydric Knox (5-10, 160), Adonis McGee (5-11, 160) and Clay Atwood (5-10, 180). Knox and McGee have mostly contributed on special teams, while Atwood, the Tigers’ No. 2 quarterback, was unexpectedly thrust into action against Ada as a fill-in for senior Jeff Surrell.

Wendel also spoke highly of lineman Braden Lyles (5-10, 180) and safety Chris Banks (6-0, 160).

“Just because of the position he plays, I’m leary of putting a freshman fullback in there because you take such a beating, but he’s got all the talent in the world,” Wendel said of Knox.

“Adonis McGee is doing a great job at receiver and in the secondary. I can see him rotating some plays in at receiver. Chris Banks is doing real good at safety ... Clay Atwood is doing a real good job, as is Braden Lyles.”

Last season, with Ardmore fielding 20 senior starters, freshmen seeing the field — let alone making an impact — would have been unthinkable. But a thinned-out roster has bred playing freshmen in some places as a necessity for the Tigers.

Sometimes, too, talent can’t be kept at bay. As of Sunday, Ardmore’s ninth-grade team is 2-1 on the season, with wins against Ada and Durant. The Tigers lost to Gainesville’s JV 13-12, but held out Knox, Walker and Atwood for Friday’s varsity game.

“We’ve got freshmen that are mature beyond their age on the field,” Wendel said. “Their team and really their class chemistry is special.

“Can you keep it together for four years? I don’t know. But they just enjoy playing football, and that’s nice to see.”

Erik K. Horne