For years college football coaches have labored, even agonized, over whether to play a freshman who might be able contribute immediately or hold him out of games to preserve a year of eligibility and hopefully cash in greater rewards down the road.
Those decisions are about to get a whole lot easier.
Rarely does the NCAA pass legislation that is both wholeheartedly endorsed by coaches and beneficial to players, but the new redshirt rule appears to be that kind of smash hit. Players will now be allowed to play in up to four games and still qualify for a redshirt season, maintaining four years of eligibility. In the past, playing just one game could cost a player an entire season of eligibility. Coaches say the change will provide needed roster depth, improve player development and avoid many of those damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situations where the choice becomes: Short-term need or long-term goals?
“Brilliant. Love it. Greatest rule the NCAA has ever put in in the last 20 years,” Minnesota coach PJ Fleck said.
It’s a game-changer. But how, exactly?
“I don’t know if people on the outside or even maybe us on the inside understand how different that rule is. How much the game is going to be different, the strategy behind it,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “I think it’s going to be fun.”
All players, no matter their class year, can be redshirted. Medical redshirts are common in college football, giving a player back a season of eligibility that was mostly lost to injury.
But it is with the freshman class that teams need a redshirt plan.
Even before incoming recruits step on campus, coaches start mapping out who is likely to play and who will probably sit. Sometimes the depth chart makes that decision. In other cases, player performance forces the issue.
The evaluation process is constant, but former UCLA coach Jim Mora said by the start of the season the staff has identified the players who will play, those who will redshirt and what players were on the bubble.
“But you had to stay fluid because of things that could can happen during the season,” said Mora, who will join ESPN as a studio analyst this season.
That is still the case, but now that fluidity is more manageable.
Stanford coach David Shaw said in 2014 the coaches had decided to redshirt Harrison Phillips, who turned into one of the most productive defensive linemen in school history. Injuries forced them to reconsider. The injured veterans returned after two games, but Phillips kept playing rather than returning to the practice squad.
On the flip side, Shaw said, defensive back Paulson Adebo was ready to play by the end of last season but coaches decided it was not worth losing a year of eligibility.
Expect coaches to take the wraps off plenty of young players during bowl season. Teams often have an eye toward the next season when preparing for a bowl game. Add in the recent trend of some established players skipping the postseason to prepare for the NFL draft process, and the ability to tap into the freshman class without regret in the bowl game becomes even more useful.
Baylor coach Matt Rhule, whose team is coming off a 1-11 season, said the new rule is a godsend for the rebuilding Bears. He expects every freshman to play.
“To me, that changes your preparation. That changes your mind-set. When you know you’re going to play, there’s a whole ‘nother level of pressure,” Rhule said. “I think it will boost their morale. I remember the first time I got in at Penn State. I got in for, like, eight plays at the end of the game against Temple. I thought I was Lawrence Taylor walking off that field. All that work, all that stuff was finally worth it.”
Penn State’s James Franklin, with a team expected to contend in the Big Ten, said he expects to take a more conservative approach with his freshmen.
“We’re not just going to play guys because we can now,” Franklin said. “They still got to earn that right. If not, we’ll save it until later in the season in case we get in a situation where we need a body.”
Players, no surprise, are all for more opportunities to play.
“If I could go back, I would have wanted to play those four games,” Mississippi State senior defensive end Gerri Green, who redshirted as a freshman. “Game speed is faster than practice speed.”
TCU coach Gary Patterson said he might use freshmen more liberally on special teams to save top of the depth chart players some wear and tear. That also means keeping a closer eye on them in practice than before.
“You’re probably going to give your freshmen more reps than what you’ve normally given them in scrimmages,” he said.
The new rule should also cut down on the shenanigans that occur when a coach plays a player for a game or two, changes his mind and then, suddenly, the player has an injury and appeals to the NCAA for a medical redshirt.
“There’s probably no more faking injuries after game three, which everybody did,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said.
Of course, no rule change is a cure-all. At some point this season a coach will find himself weighing whether to use a player in a fifth game — and the idea of giving football players five full seasons of eligibility has been tossed around coaching circles for years.
For now, though, everybody seems pretty pumped about getting four free games.
“It’s a great rule,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said. “It’s a much-needed rule. It’s great for the student-athlete.”