Bethlehem, PA – It could have been an awkward situation for linebacker Jake Rodriques when he stepped into the Fordham lineup as a freshman in 2010.
All eyes were on him even while he began on the seventh string, only to work his way up the depth chart.
That Rodriques was part of the first recruiting class to receive football scholarships at Fordham caught people's attention, but it had nothing to do with him gaining increased playing time. He earned his way.
Fordham is in its fourth season of offering football scholarships, and the rest of the Patriot League has caught up, handing them out for the first time. The league coaches who picked defending champion Colgate as a slight preseason favorite over Lehigh on Wednesday said they are committed to playing time being based on production, not potential, whether it's the freshmen with scholarships or no scholarships in the sophomore, junior and senior classes.
"The reality of the matter is we're all on the field to win games," Rodriques said. "It's not a popularity contest. The best player will play no matter how old you are."
It a unique dynamic as football scholarships are introduced to the league because the upper classmen, and most of the star players, will not be on scholarships. The new kids on the block will have them.
Some coaches will address the issue, while others won't. It's business as usual.
Having gone to scholarships prior to league rules, Fordham will remain ineligible for the Patriot title for a fourth and final season. So Rodriques and other standouts, like Walter Payton Award candidate Carlton Koonce at running back, will go through their careers not being able to win the league title.
But Fordham officials felt the addition of football scholarships was the right way for raising their program. Other Patriot coaches favored scholarships, too, back in 2010, but it took until last year for the league presidents to allow for 15 scholarships per recruiting class, beginning this past February.
Only Georgetown has yet to add football scholarships - sticking to need-based aid for its student-athletes - and eighth-year coach Kevin Kelly remains hopeful of a future change in policy.
"Whether you're a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, you've got to be the best player to play," Colgate coach Dick Biddle said. "You're always recruiting good talent. I'm trying to recruit good talent every year to push kids, and I think that makes your other kids better."
"Some of these (freshmen) have tremendous potential coming in," Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore said, "but you could have said that for some of the guys coming in in past years. I just think it's very difficult for freshmen to come in, regardless of their potential, to gain that experience and be able to perform consistently on the field. And I don't think that's changing."
Offensive linemen, who have to bulk up physically, generally are the least likely to contribute right away as freshmen. Those in the skills positions and possess speed have better chances. Many freshmen will be asked to contribute on special teams.
While the quality of play will rise in the league and Patriot programs are better prepared for the recruiting battles against other scholarship conferences - even the rival Ivy League, which doesn't have athletic scholarships - its members will need to get help from true walk-ons. Under league rules, a program which offers academic aid to a student-athlete must relinquish a scholarship. It surely won't happen, so there will be fewer "recruited" players overall.
"What's going to be important is roster management," Lehigh coach Andy Coen said. "The Patriot League classes have always been in the high 20s, maybe some years even 30 kids. This year, we're bringing in 22 players. I think that's going to be about the top end. If you look at some of the stronger programs in the FCS, they're giving 15 scholarships a year. You need to give the full scholarship to get the better player."
"The most I heard today for (preseason camps) was 92 (players)," Lafayette coach Frank Tavani said. "There was only one other at 90 and the rest of us were about 88, 89 for camp. Next year, you graduate a large class and bring in smaller people, that's going to continue to decline to the point where it's going to be difficult and it becomes a safety issue because of just pure practice preparation."
While that's a problem that has to be solved in the future, the addition of scholarship players have been a long time coming for Patriot League programs.
Even the upperclassmen are on board. They, too, wish the scholarships were available when they were freshmen, like Jake Rodriques at Fordham.
The best players will play. That's all the players need to hear to stay motivated.
"I think it's great," Colgate junior linebacker Kris Kent said. "Obviously, the Patriot League has been working for that for a long time now. I think it's about time that they allowed that. I just think it's just going to make the play that much better."
PATRIOT LEAGUE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
Voted on by Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors
1. Colgate (8 first-place votes), 58 points
2. Lehigh (6), 56
3. Holy Cross, 35
4. Lafayette, 32
5. Georgetown, 26
6. Bucknell, 15
Fordham ineligible for league championship
PRESEASON ALL-PATRIOT TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Gavin McCarney, QB, Colgate
Defensive Player of the Year - Dustin Wharton, LB, Georgetown
QB - Gavin McCarney, Colgate, Sr.
RB - Carlton Koonce, Fordham, Sr.
RB - Ross Scheuerman, Lafayette, Sr.
FB/HB - Travis Friend, Bucknell, Sr.
FB/HB - Ed Pavalko, Colgate, Jr.
WR - Mike Fess, Holy Cross, Sr.
WR - Mark Ross, Lafayette, Sr.
WR - Brian Wetzel, Fordham, Jr.
TE - Dan Light, Fordham, Jr.
OL - Luke Chiarolanzio, Lafayette, Jr.
OL - Ned Daryoush, Lehigh, Jr.
OL - Kyle Pedretty, Holy Cross, Sr.
OL - Andrew Scarmado, Colgate, Sr.
OL - James Spaly, Georgetown, Sr.
DL - Gary Acquah, Holy Cross, Sr.
DL - Sean Campbell, Georgetown, Sr.
DL - Sean Sellers, Bucknell, Sr.
DL - Tracey Smith, Bucknell, Sr.
LB - Mike Boles, Lafayette, Sr.
LB - Evan Byers, Bucknell, Jr.
LB - Nigel Muhammad, Lehigh, Sr.
LB - Dustin Wharton, Georgetown, Sr.
DB - Mike Armiento, Colgate, Jr.
DB - Jared Roberts, Lafayette, Jr.
DB - Matthew Steinbeck, Bucknell, Jr.
DB - Ian Williams, Fordham, Sr.
RS - Kalif Raymond, Holy Cross, So.
PK - John Macomber, Holy Cross, Sr.
P - John Macomber, Holy Cross, Sr.