In the ultracompetitive world of college football, it’s tough to get coaches to agree on anything. Rivalries, recruiting battles and differing agendas get in the way, blocking consensus.
But there they were in Chicago’s Downtown Marriott Magnificent Mile in late July, the 14 Big Ten coaches walking in lock-step over a new NCAA rule.
Beginning this season, Division I players are allowed to play up to four games without burning a year of eligibility. Under the old system, playing even one game, in most cases, would have cost the player a year.
“I’m fired up about that rule. There’s a lot of coaches in the country excited about it,” Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald said.
“If you can find someone who doesn’t think that’s a good rule, I’d love to speak to that person,” Maryland’s DJ Durkin concurred.
“It’s one of the best rules to ever be invented and brought to the NCAA, and we’re going to use it,” the Gophers’ P.J. Fleck gushed.
The coaches are giddy for a few reasons. First, it gives them roster flexibility. Say your left tackle turns an ankle and will miss a couple of weeks, you now can plug in a promising freshman to fill in briefly without burning a precious season. And it doesn’t matter when.
Coaches can mix and match which games they use a player — early, late, in a bowl game, consecutive or intermittent — as long as he doesn’t play more than four games.
“Every year when it starts getting down to that November run, you’re dealing with injuries,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, now on paid administrative leave because of an investigation into how he handled a former assistant coach with domestic assault allegations. “You’re dealing with other issues, fatigue, etcetera. You’d like to have some bodies available.”
Second, the coaches believe players will benefit, too. Durkin said all coaches used to have to keep “guys clearly ready to play” on the bench because of the old rule. Not anymore — valuable experience will be gained.
Third, it fosters competition and keeps players engaged. “As head coaches, we like to think everybody on our team is focused. But we’re not naïve, either,” Fleck said. “We know that there are some guys after they know they are being redshirted who’ll say, ‘OK, I’m being redshirted,’ and you’ll see a little bit of a dip in their performance.”
“This is like Triple-A baseball,” Fleck added. “You’re down there and you struck out nine … you’re getting called up, you’re going to play.”
Players are on board, too. Just ask Gophers linebacker Carter Coughlin, who sees the value in tackling an opponent over a teammate.
“When you get out there [in a game], it’s a lot different than being on a scout team or even practicing,” Coughlin said. “You might think a guy’s ready, and he freezes up. If he freezes up and has to burn a redshirt [as in the past], that could ruin everything.”
As for the Gophers …
With only nine scholarship seniors on his roster, Fleck said freshmen will play. Expect to see these true freshmen in prominent roles:
• Zack Annexstad. At the very least, Annexstad will be the backup to Tanner Morgan, if he doesn’t win the starting job outright. With Morgan being the only scholarship QB on the roster — Fleck hinted that Annexstad will join that status in due time — expect the IMG Academy product to have more than spot duty.
• Rashod Bateman. When you lure a 6-2, 200-pound, four-star wideout out of Georgia after the Bulldogs, among other SEC powers, offered him, you get him on the field, pronto.
• Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap Jr. The massive offensive linemen — 6-9 and 400 for Faalele and 6-5 and 370 for Dunlap — pose an interesting decision for Fleck. “Do we redshirt them, or do we play them? We’ll find out,” Fleck said.
• Nolan Edmonds and Bryce Williams. The talented running backs could help ease the load on Rodney Smith.
• C.J. Smith, Josh Aune and Benny Sapp III: The Gophers are thin at safety after starters Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jacob Huff, so youngsters could supply defensive backfield depth.
“It’s going to be unique, whether we play a person, skip two games. Play them all at the front end, play them all at the back end, wait for injury,” Fleck said. “… I don’t think anybody has the perfect formula right now.”
The Gophers could have used the rule last year. When injuries hit the offensive line, Fleck was tempted to use true freshman Blaise Andries but opted to preserve his redshirt. A thin secondary forced true freshman Justus Harris to play in three games, costing him a season. And when quarterbacks Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft struggled, Fleck considered playing Morgan but resisted temptation and kept his year.
Another benefit of the new rule is that it eliminates the medical redshirt. Previously, if a player had a season-ending injury in the first half of a season and had played in less than 30 percent of his team’s games, the program could apply to have the season of eligibility restored. Winfield went through that when he suffered a hamstring injury in the fourth game last year. He had to wait for NCAA approval to see if the year was restored, which it was. “It was nerve-racking because you don’t know,” he said.
This year, the rule could give the Gophers a late-season boost in the backfield. Senior running back Shannon Brooks suffered what Fleck deemed a season-ending leg injury shortly before spring practice. But the new rule, which was adopted June 13, has given Brooks a reprieve. The versatile back could see action late in the season if he’s recovered, and if he plays fewer than four games, he’ll still have his senior season next year.
It’s no wonder coaches are excited.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” Fleck said. “It gives this young, inexperienced football team a ton of experience no matter what.’’