Redshirt rule allowing freshmen to contribute sooner
By CRAIG HALEY
Stats Perform FCS Senior Editor
(Stats Perform) - The high school seniors who are committing to college football programs know they have a better chance of contributing in games this fall than they would have had in most past years.
Many student-athletes will finalize national letters of intent with their respective college of choice beginning Wednesday, joining those who ended the recruiting process during a three-day signing period in December - the third year for earlier commitments.
But the NCAA's four-game redshirt rule that also enters its third year is even more player-friendly, and college team-friendly, for that matter.
Prior to the 2018 season, a player who participated in just one snap would enact one of his four seasons of eligibility. Beginning in 2018, the rule was changed to allow a player to participate in up to four games while not sacrificing the one redshirt season in his five-year NCAA eligibility clock. The redshirt season is used predominantly in a player's first year on campus, when true freshmen get acclimated to the school and the football program while training to get bigger, stronger and faster.
The four-game redshirt rule is particularly important on the FCS level of Division I, where the 63-scholarship maximum is 22 fewer than the FBS level.
"I think it is a good rule when you are talking about player development," Wofford coach Josh Conklin said. "It allows your freshmen to stay engaged in the complete process of becoming student-athletes. If they continually improve their first semester, and mature, they will have an opportunity to play."
FCS national champion North Dakota State played four true freshmen more than four games this past season, but 13 others gained playing time. James Madison, the national runner-up, utilized eight true freshmen, although only two went beyond four games.
Many other programs did similar test drives with their first-year players.
"I always say the toughest year is the year that they redshirt because they don't feel like a part of the team," Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler said.
"Has (the rule) made it better? Yes, it's made it better because it gives you more flexibility."
Considering the FCS level is usually all hands on deck, coaches can reward freshmen with playing time to get them better prepared for their second season on campus. Coaches also like how the redshirt rule makes for a deeper roster when injuries arise.
"I think the redshirt rule has allowed us to handle injuries better by not rushing kids back," Montana State coach Jeff Choate. "It helps to build depth and is good for student-athlete morale. I think the number of guys you end up 'pulling' the redshirt on is more based where the program is at and its overall needs.
"It allows us to create more of a third team instead of your normal scout team," UT Martin coach Jason Simpson said. "When you have a player get dinged up, we can insert a freshman, get him some key game reps while still preserving his redshirt. In the past, we have had to play kids here and there to make up for injuries and it resulted in us losing a potential fifth year as a starter down the road."
There are pitfalls to the rule that ultimately coaches may have to address with the NCAA. Players are feeling more emboldened to dictate their eligibility rather than leaving it in the hands of their coaches.
Houston's starting quarterback D'Eriq King announced in September after four games he would redshirt the remainder of the season to maintain another season of eligibility, although he later transferred out of the program. On the FCS level, Howard lost third-year quarterback Caylin Newton after he stepped away from the program following the fourth game.
Still, the positives outweigh the negatives, and the four-game redshirt gives players an earlier chance for playing time and ultimately to be successful.
"With the old rule," Conklin said, "you had to make decisions during training camp on if you thought a guy was going to be ready to play. That is really not a fair situation for true freshmen. It takes time. As a coach, you don't have to project on their readiness. You allow them to go through the process and learn at their own speed. Some are ready week 2, 5, 8, or in the playoffs. Some never do get ready, and that is OK. In my opinion, it is a player-friendly model, it allows you to really develop players."
Updated February 4, 2020