Why the new redshirt rule is good news for coaches, athletes

USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Joe Leccesi is a former college-athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

Redshirt Division 1 football players will no longer be forced to give up a season of eligibility for taking even just one snap in a game, thanks to a rule change recently announced by the NCAA. The new rule, which goes into effect for the 2018-19 Division 1 football season (but is not retroactive), states that they can participate in up to four games—even a bowl game–in a season without burning a season of competition. Proponents of the change are calling the rule change a win-win for coaches and athletes. What this means for recruiting remains to be seen.

Read more: NCAA Eligibility Requirements for Student-Athletes

What is a redshirt athlete?

A redshirt student-athlete is one who gains a season of competition—a fifth year to use four years of eligibility—if they do not participate in their sport for one academic year. Typically, they will have a scholarship. They can attend classes and practice with the team and be in uniform on the sidelines during games. But under the old rules, they would use a season of eligibility if they were called upon to play in a game. There are several reasons why a coach will redshirt a player. The coach may want them to use the extra year to develop physically—especially important in football—or to have the time to learn the team’s playbook and system. Coaches may also prevail upon a freshman student-athlete to redshirt if the bench is too deep at his position. Then there are the “academic” redshirts, whose high school transcript does not meet the college’s academic eligibility requirements, and the medical redshirt, a player who suffered a season-ending injury while appearing in less than 30 percent of the team’s games. According to 2015 NCAA statistics, at least half of D1 football players redshirt in their first year of college.

From coach to crusader

Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, has advocated for this rule change for more than 15 years. He knows firsthand the frustration and the sense of unfairness of the former rule that many considered draconian. “I was used to getting frustrated whenever I would have a young man who was working really hard and was capable, but maybe not ready to impact a game,” he said in a recent phone interview. “His parents would be in the stands. I remember the first time I ran on the field and the elation I felt, and I would want to let him play three or four snaps at the end of a ballgame just so he understands, ‘This is why I’ve worked so hard.’”

But it was a 1999 playoff run that turned him into a crusader to change the redshirt rule. He was the head coach at Division 1-AA Illinois State University. “In the semi-finals, the game before the national championship, I ran out of players (due to injuries),” he recalled. “There was a rookie freshman defensive lineman who had not played all season. I had a meeting with him, but we’re going for the national championship, so obviously he felt the pressure to take it upon himself to burn his redshirt to play in that game. Ever since I’ve thought how unfair that was to him.”

Over the years, Berry further noted, the number of games has increased and with them the number of injuries to players. Late in the season (by which time injuries have generally taken their toll on a roster), coaches may have been compelled to call upon a redshirt athlete to replace an injured player, costing him a season of eligibility.

Benefits of the new redshirt rule

Allowing redshirts to participate in up to four games has the benefit of keeping players engaged. “Absolutely,” Berry said. “Every data point we’ve been shown by the NCAA states that the redshirt year is the most difficult for the student-athlete. They’re doing a lot of work and there is no (immediate) payoff. Most of these kids are used to succeeding; that’s part of the reason they were recruited. They might rationally understand they are coming into redshirt so they can mature, but I’ve coached for 34 years and seen a lot of players and the reality is they were always disappointed. The majority think they’re going to come in and win the Heisman Trophy.”

The new rule also takes the place of the medical hardship rule. “I had a freshman on the team who started as a running back,” Berry said. “He hurt his knee and was not available to play until the sixth game of his sophomore year. He was cleared to play by the doctor, came into the game and re-injured his knee in the first half. He only played a half of a ballgame in the sixth game of the season and he lost his eligibility because the team had played more than 30 percent of its games. You look at the fairness of this and you ask if this is really what we’re trying to accomplish. I would argue that it’s not.”

How will the new rule impact recruiting?

Berry believes the new rule could help to slow down transfers by disenchanted freshmen. “(The new rule) will give a young person exposure early in the season; it will give them encouragement and allow coaches to see how they perform. I’ve certainly had athletes I thought were ready to play and impact a game. You put them out on the field and maybe it was one of those things where they weren’t quite ready. This gives the coach some clarity; it will be utilized late in the season when you have some injuries and you know you’ve given a person a little more time to feel comfortable about putting them on the field.”

Brenden Albert, NCSA football recruiting coach, said, “I think we will see more freshman getting reps in special teams and sub packages to get their feet wet in college football so that when asked to be a full-time starter they are more prepared. This will lead to coaches talking more about playing time in the recruiting process and a way to encourage kids to come to their schools.”

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