May is rule-discussion season around the SEC, culminating with the conference’s annual spring meetings in Destin, Fla., later this month. The proposal receiving the brightest media spotlight in recent days happens to be one that coaches love.
Last week, news broke that the American Football Coaches Association was sending a proposal to the NCAA that would change college football’s long-standing redshirt rule in a significant way: Players could appear in up to four games and still retain redshirt status for that season.
For instance, if this rule change had been adopted last season, Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson would enter 2017 as a redshirt freshman, despite playing in three games last November. Schools dealing with significant depth issues — such as Kentucky, which lost starting quarterback Drew Barker early in the year — could have played backup Gunnar Hoak late in the season without needing to fret over his redshirt status. And players who perhaps had their redshirts pulled too early, including South Carolina’s Brandon McIlwain, would not have lost an entire season despite receiving minimal playing time.
The rule change also would allow fans to see more future stars play in bowl games than ever before. Imagine Alabama being able to unleash 5-star LB Ben Davis against Clemson in the national championship game?
At the very least, the prospect of early playing time would be a useful motivational tool for someone like coach Nick Saban, whose talent-hoarding abilities annually force the Crimson Tide to redshirt blue-chip players.
On Monday, several SEC coaches addressed the redshirt rule on the spring football teleconference, and all of them expressed varying degrees of support for the proposed change.
Here is what 10 of the conference’s program-leaders had to say:
- Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: “I’m definitely in favor of that. You look at some of the restrictions with academic redshirts, with injuries, number of scholarships, length of season. We’re looking at health and safety of players. There might be a guy that you might like to play, but he’s not quite developed. He’s not quite ready, for whatever reason. But as the season goes on, at the end of his freshman year, say ‘Hey, this guy could be ready. He could take some reps off another guy.’ You should be able to do that. The other tragedy is a guy that maybe starts playing midway through the season thinking he might not play, midway through the season he plays two games, he gets hurt. That counts as a whole year even though he played less than the four games that would be allowed at the beginning of the year. I think that would be very advantageous to the players and for the game, and for the development of these young men as they go forward.”
- Ed Orgeron, LSU: “Love it. I think that’d be great. You can take those guys, invest in your roster, invest in the development of your team, invest in your rotation. This is basketball on grass these days. You got some offenses out there trying to run 100 plays [per game]. The game has doubled in the sense of what we play. The more guys you can play without burning a year would be great.”
- Jim McElwain, Florida: “Why not just let them play? Give them the five years of eligibility and call it the way it is. As you get later in the season, now you’ve got those guys you’d like to get in there that played in whatever, 20 percent of the first — I’m not real good at math anyway, so trying to figure out when to use them and not to use them. But I do think that’s a good rule.”
- Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: “I think the old rule is an antiquated rule. If this rule comes into effect, what we’re looking at is the ability to bolster your roster a little bit and give yourself a chance. If you’re acclimated and they can play, you let them play. Now, when that is, that’s really on you. Last year, when you look at [Leonard] Fournette, [Christian] McCaffrey and those guys not playing in bowl games — those guys affect games. Is that going to be a future trend? I don’t know. As we move forward, coaches have to prepare for guys who may be draft-worthy possibly not playing in postseason games. And what does that do to you in terms of your numbers and/or players who are readily available to you? I look at it and say it’s a good rule.”
- Nick Saban, Alabama: “I absolutely would be in favor of that. One of the most difficult things for players is they can’t play at all when they’re freshmen to be able to gain a redshirt year. They all want to play. This would give them an opportunity to play some and would actually enhance their development to some degree. With the numbers we have right now and the number of games we’re playing, you might be able to play a few more players in some of those games. That would help other players on your team as well. The No. 1 thing: It would tremendously help the development of some young players on your team to be able to look forward to playing some games but not lose the year. You eliminate some of these things where a guy plays for five plays in a game, and you got to appeal to get his year back because you either made a mistake putting him in the game or you thought he was going to play more and he didn’t.”
- Bret Bielema, Arkansas: “I actually sit on the American Football Coaches Association panel … I’ve had a while to process the one we just discussed. Allowing four games as a first-year player without counting against you would be pretty significant.”
- Barry Odom, Missouri: “Moving forward, when you get the depth a little bit more like it needs to be, it could be a luxury not only for your program but for the development of your kids. To the point that you think he’s ready to go play, at whatever point it is during the season, then you’ve got the decision to make … I think there’s some merit to that.”
- Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss: “I love the new proposal out there. I think it’s needed with everything that’s going on in college athletics. The season’s getting longer. The more physical play, the year-round the toll that’s on [players’] bodies. It’s a great option if you can play freshmen or a kid that’s going through a redshirt year in four games or less. I think it’s a very positive and needed change we need to make. [Pulling Patterson’s redshirt] would’ve been an easy decision to make at that point. I think it’s also going to be beneficial in bowl games.”
- Mark Stoops, Kentucky: “I think that rule change would make a lot of sense. We were in that situation last year when we had a quarterback hurt early in the year, Drew Barker. We played most of the year with our backup quarterback being a redshirt guy. We decided to keep that redshirt on Gunnar Hoak in Game 11. Played our third-team quarterback, who did some good things. But it was a situation that could’ve benefited us a year ago. It can protect the player in a redshirt year, it can help gain experience for the following year. Good rule.”
- Will Muschamp, South Carolina: “Absolutely. I think that’d be a great rule. When an injury happens or you’re sitting in a position when a young man may not be totally ready, you may not know until he plays on game day. A lot of time you say, ‘This guy’s ready to go,’ and then he gets to game day and he doesn’t play very well. … From an experience standpoint, I think it just helps overall.”