Wednesday, the NCAA adopted new rules that will have a significant impact on college football rosters. Under the new rules, players can participate in up to four games in a season and still be eligible to redshirt for that season.
Under the previous rules, participating in even one snap during a season would burn a player’s redshirt for the year unless that player received a medical exemption from the NCAA. Now, a player can participate in up to four games – a quarter of the regular season – and still be able to redshirt and not lose a year of eligibility.
This rule change, which takes effect this coming season, will have a significant effect on how all college football teams manage their rosters. What will those effects be, and how specifically will they affect Nebraska?
DEPTH OPTIONS FOR INJURIES
More than likely, the biggest change this rule will create is the ability for schools to expand the pool of players they can use to cover injuries. Take a look at Nebraska’s roster distribution and you can see an alarming depth situation at a number of key positions.
With the new rule, Nebraska will now be able to press true freshmen in a crisis situation without having to burn their redshirts for one play. So if Nebraska finds itself due to injury or suspension down to a choice between a true freshman scholarship player or a walk-on without the requisite talent to hold up, Nebraska will now not have to factor in the loss of a redshirt season to let that freshman play for a game or four.
This could become even more important on the offensive and defensive lines, when freshmen are given an extra couple of months in the strength and conditioning program to build up size and strength to stand up against B1G competition. Particularly at offensive line, even being able to increase the number of players that can be included in a rotation will help preserve the starters’ ability to last throughout a season.
IN-GAME OPPORTUNITIES FOR PROMISING FRESHMEN
The other significant change that the new redshirt rule will provide is the ability for teams to give immediate in-game opportunities for incoming freshman that could compete for playing time.
As an example, take a look at Jaylin Bradley’s 2017 campaign for Nebraska as a true freshman.
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Under the old system, once Bradley entered the game against Northern Illinois – even though he didn’t touch the ball – his redshirt year was gone. Whether or not the juice was worth the squeeze with regards to the decision to burn his redshirt season is certainly up for debate. But there’s no question that as a result of the old rule, his sporadic use was a sunk cost.
Under the new rule, Bradley’s entry into the game against Northern Illinois and Rutgers would have still left the coaching staff with the ability to find spots for him to potentially contribute (such as Purdue and Iowa) while protecting his redshirt eligibility.
An even clearer example of how the new rule and avoiding the sunk cost of a burned redshirt could benefit both players and teams is wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey. Here’s Lindsey’s 2017 total offensive output.
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Lindsey was one of Nebraska’s most exciting recruits in the 2017 class, and it made perfect sense to get him onto the field and see if his electric skills could make a difference. Unfortunately for Lindsey, it didn’t really work out for him to contribute last year – although, in Lindsey’s defense, not a lot went well for Nebraska last year.
But again, under the old system, once he set foot on the field for one snap against Arkansas State, his redshirt season was gone. Even though the Lindsey experiment was clearly failing, there was no point in not playing him, as the redshirt season was a sunk cost.
Under the new rule, Lindsey would have had four games to demonstrate his ability to contribute on the field. If it wasn’t happening – and boy, was it not happening for Lindsey – then the coaches could have benched Lindsey after those four games and saved a full year of his eligibility.
(Stats from cfbstats.com)
ADDITIONAL MOTIVATION OPPORTUNITIES
Under the old rule, redshirting freshmen pretty much knew they were in for a season of observation. Sure, there’s still plenty of motivation for them to be putting work in for seasons to come. But it’s human nature to have a little extra motivation if you know a payoff for your hard work can come sooner rather than later.
Well, with the new rule there’s another carrot that coaches can use to help drive freshman performance. If a player knows that he could get into four games during the season and not burn a redshirt year, there’s little doubt that will provide a little extra motivational push to perform and earn that playing time.
SPECIFIC ADVANTAGES FOR NEBRASKA
Every school is going to reap the benefits of this new rule, of course. But a program like Nebraska seems poised to take particular advantage of the change.
For schools at the top end, the rule change is going to have limited effect. Part of what makes schools like Alabama and Ohio State such perennial powers is that their rosters are loaded up with blue-chip athletes both young and old. As a result, those schools are far less likely to reach a depth crisis where they would be forced to consider burning a redshirt year to fill a gaping hole in the depth chart due to injury or suspension.
As a result, this de facto expansion of a team’s eligible roster – somewhat akin to Major League Baseball’s expanded rosters in September – should act as somewhat of a leveling device between programs. Because programs such as Nebraska, a tier (or two or three) below teams like Alabama and Ohio State, are more likely to need and use freshmen to fill in depth gaps, the rule change is likely to benefit those lower-tier schools more. That will help close the gap between the Alabamas of the world and those chasing them.
Additionally, because those top-flight schools have stacked rosters already, it would be more difficult for top-tier freshmen to crack the starting lineup. Because those freshmen can see the field earlier without burning a redshirt, the “chasing” programs now have an additional card to play in recruiting battles for highly-regarded prospects – come to a school like Nebraska, and it’s more likely you’ll see the field right away.
The NCAA is quite rightly criticized for any number of things it has done poorly (GIVE US BACK OUR NCAA FOOTBALL VIDEO GAME!!!!) over the years. But this rule change is great. It’s good for the players. It’s good for the schools. And in helping to level the playing field, it’s good for the sport in general.