The New Redshirt Rule and Its Impact
One of the major changes heading into this college football season was a new rule regarding redshirting players. For the first time, players can play up to four games without sacrificing their redshirt status.
In the past, players would lose their ability to redshirt if they took one snap in that season. This put teams in conflicting situations, wanting to play players who are worthy of playing, but not wanting to lose a year of eligibility if they could avoid it.
This rule creates some intriguing dynamics in the college football landscape. For programs with a bigger emphasis on recruiting high-level athletes, this creates some awkward and contentious situations.
A unique situation that could have ended differently last season was with Alabama and quarterback Tua Tagavailoa. While Tagavailoa played in 8 games, let's play devil’s advocate and take out the games where he had 5 pass attempts or less. Tagavailoa had played in four games (of 9 or more pass attempts) heading into the National Championship Game against Georgia.
Would Nick Saban, with a potential extra year of eligibility on the line with his true freshman backup quarterback, have sacrificed a year of that eligibility and benched starter Jalen Hurts in the second half in favor of Tagavailoa? The easy answer for the not close to the situation: probably. But it warrants some pretty serious consideration that you could lose an entire season of a player for one game.
Now, fast forward to 2018. Hurts is the backup. He’s already played in five games, so the true junior is ineligible to redshirt during the 2018 season. After starting his first two seasons in their entirety as the Crimson Tide’s quarterback, Hurts has taken a back seat to his younger teammate.
While Hurts’ dedication to his team is commendable, is he possibly doing himself a disservice by not looking to transfer to a program where he could start? No one would have blamed Hurts, who lost two games as a starting quarterback in two seasons, for looking to preserve a year of eligibility by transferring to another program.
The Georgia Bulldogs find themselves in a somewhat similar situation. The quarterback position is one of the most unique; handle with kid gloves situations in all of sports. Typically, only one can play.
During the 2017 season, Georgia received a commitment from Justin Fields, the #1 quarterback recruit in the country. A five-star recruit, Fields’ eventual arrival in Athens came with pomp and circumstance. However, he would become the third five-star quarterback on the roster. After getting injured during his sophomore season, Jacob Eason lost his starting position to Jake Fromm, who led the Bulldogs to a National Championship Game appearance. Eason decided to transfer in February.
Was Eason in the wrong to do this? His opportunity to play at the premier position in the sport was gone, so he transferred back to his home state, to a seemingly more player-friendly landing spot. Now Eason, who played as a true freshman at Georgia in 2016, and played in six games in 2017, will sit out the 2018 season and will take over as the starter in 2019.
This leads us back to Fields, who just played in his fifth game of the season for Georgia. Did Fields do himself a disservice by losing a year of eligibility in a season where he, barring injury, will not start?
This puts Georgia in a precarious situation moving forward. With Fromm being a true sophomore, he is not eligible to declare for the NFL Draft until after the 2019 season. Does Georgia stand in a position to lose both quarterbacks after the 2019 season, if Fields is not named the starter in 2019? Do they name Fields the starter in 2019, and allow Fromm to walk, seemingly deciding to get two years out of a star quarterback than the one remaining from Fromm, with Fields using his ability to redshirt this season?
Possibly the biggest victims of this new rule, Clemson has lost two quarterbacks since spring.
Most recently and notably, former starting quarterback Kelly Bryant decided to leave the team and redshirt this season, with the ability to graduate transfer for the 2019 season. This is due to Bryant being usurped as the starter by a freshman, former five-star phenom Trevor Lawrence, in a similar situation to what the Tigers experienced with Deshaun Watson a few seasons ago.
Bryant felt as though he didn’t receive a fair opportunity as the starter this season, despite leading his team to the College Football Playoff in 2017. Bryant was the second quarterback to leave the program this year, following Hunter Johnson in the spring.
Johnson, you guessed it, is a former five-star recruit who was unable to beat out Kelly Bryant, and was seemingly passed by the newcomer Lawrence during spring. Johnson transferred to Northwestern in the spring, and will likely start for the Wildcats in 2019.
Did Clemson handle this situation correctly? In the aforementioned case with Watson, he replaced senior Cole Stoudt halfway through his freshman season before injuring his knee. Bryant and Lawrence shared a similar trajectory, but now Bryant can redshirt and play for another team in 2019, while Lawrence seemingly will be the big man on campus for the next two-plus seasons.
However, the Tigers went from an embarrassment of riches at the position, to seemingly only Lawrence, who left his first career start due to injury last Saturday.
While this could be an entirely different conversation, the question lends itself; who’s more at fault in these situations? The teams, who recruit multiple star athletes to one position, knowing that ultimately only one can truly be the starter and leader of the team? Or does the fault lay on the shoulders of the student-athletes, who either chose to ignore or did not have the foresight to see these types of situations potentially unfolding in front of them?
Oklahoma State wide receiver Jalen McCleskey announced after the fourth game of the Cowboys’ season that he would be redshirting and transferring at the end of this season, citing a lack of touches as his motivation to utilize the new rule.
This is the first prominent non-quarterback to implement the rule, as McCleskey had been a major contributor for the Cowboys over the past couple of seasons. This raises another provoking question: How common could this type of occurrence become over the next couple of seasons? With the ability for players to seemingly decide if their current production, past production be damned, to determine whether or not they will finish a season with a school is an unorthodox dynamic, for lack of a better term.
Another player, in a bit of a different situation, who this rule could have effected is Jalen Hurd, a senior wide receiver at Baylor.
Hurd, a well-documented case, left Tennessee after playing in seven games in 2016, and transferred to Baylor, switching positions from running back to wide receiver. Hurd mentioned the decreased likelihood of injury and greater earning potential at the receiver position as reasons for the switch.
Hurd, who had 31 of his 122 carries during the 2016 season after game number four, could have a case as a player who is the poster child of who this rule could have benefitted in the past. Hurd lost a year of eligibility that he could have had in the current climate, had he transferred after the fourth game of his true junior season at Tennessee.
Hurd cited the increasing toll the running back position took on his body in Knoxville, and looking back, a 26 carry performance would prove to be his last significant production as a runner in his collegiate career. Hurd, a player who is seemingly before his time in his foresight of his body and football career, would have been a major benefactor of the rule had it been in place in 2016.
This rule, while well intended, has already shown to provide some untraditional situations. I do not anticipate the number of players who utilize this rule to decrease as it ages.
Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow has already voiced his opinion, stating he isn’t a fan of the rule for fear of the fourth game becoming a pseudo-trade deadline in college football.
While there will certainly be those who laud Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields for their willingness to play in positions that do not immediately benefit them, the question fairly rises, are they in the right for “playing for the team”? Or, as quarterbacks, should they be looking to find the most fruitful situations to advance themselves as the high profile athletes at the position that they are?
Would one think less of either of them had they chosen the path of Kelly Bryant, who ultimately made the other decision, to benefit himself and be mindful of his future in football, and put himself in a position to succeed?
This rule could change how college football teams approach recruiting as a whole, but also specifically the quarterback position. Georgia, at one time, had two former five-star quarterbacks on the roster, and one waiting to get on campus. With one already gone, one has to wonder, how many of them will finish their careers at Georgia?
This rule has already shifted a significant dynamic in college football. Don’t expect it to slow down anytime soon.