INDIANAPOLIS -- Imagine if Tua Tagovailoa, star of the College Football Playoff championship for Alabama, returned next fall for a repeat championship run. As a freshman.
Or if it was fairly commonplace for veterans with redshirt seasons to burn to come back from offseason injuries to assume key roles on conference-championship weekend.
A proposal sponsored by the ACC calls for players who participate in four games or fewer to retain their redshirt status. The NCAA Division I Council is scheduled to vote on the measure in April. If approved, then ratified by the board of directors, freshmen nationally may test the waters in football as soon as this fall without exhausting a season of eligibility.
The redshirt rule would replace the standard currently in place to receive a medical hardship. It represents a dramatic change for college football. And it appears to possess significant support. This week at the NCAA convention, student-athletes and administrators voiced approval for the proposal, which previously received the widespread endorsement of coaches.
“I don’t think it’s right for a young man to lose a redshirt over what may be a need for a team, in a competitive situation, to have to find a player to play,” said Miami athletic director Blake James, chair of the DI Council.
“Whether it’s a bowl game or a game late in the season, personally, I struggle with why we would take away the redshirt.”
Tagovailoa, the QB who led the Crimson Tide from behind to beat Georgia last week, played in eight games as a true freshman. Alabama won four of those contests by 38 points or more, and in four of his mop-up appearances, Tagovailoa threw for 64 yards or fewer.
Surely, Alabama could have devised a plan in which he was available only against LSU and Auburn, perhaps, and for two of three possible postseason games.
The creation of such a secret weapon, so to speak, is not the intent of the redshirt proposal.
“That’s such an exceptional circumstance,” said Northwestern offensive guard Tommy Doles, a member of the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “I’m primarily looking at this from the perspective of who it’s going to affect. Maybe it’s worth it for one or two of those situations because of all the benefit it brings.”
So whom would it affect? Coaches and legislators believe the passage of this proposal would enhance player safety. An established player may feel less pressure to perform while injured if a healthy backup -- otherwise in the midst of a redshirt season -- was available.
Evidence exists, said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, that players who compete in games are more engaged academically and socially.
“This is a vote for the student-athletes,” Berry said. “This is fair for them. The old rule is archaic. The old rule was put in place when we had 105 scholarships and 10 games.”
Scholarships are capped today at 85. Georgia played 15 games in the recently finished season. Two years ago, injuries forced West Virginia to strip the redshirt of freshman running back Martell Pettaway in Week 13. He rushed for 181 yards to help the Mountaineers beat Iowa State and played a week later in the regular-season finale.
But in the WVU bowl game, with older players back from injury, Pettaway received just three carries.
“It’s just a shame to waste a year of eligibility for that,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who sits on the DI Council and chairs the Football Oversight Committee.
No doubt, fans would love the added element of strategy and increased freshman participation. So what’s the downside? Well, as Coastal Carolina safety Nick Clark explained in Indianapolis, redshirt seasons are important for many players.
“That’s really a time for some players to focus solely on their training,” Clark said.
Coaches may struggle to resist the temptation to play redshirts -- and few competitors would turn down the chance to play in order to stay on a workout plan designed to provide long-term benefits.
It would complicate the roles of strength and nutrition staffs and may lead some players to rush back from lengthy rehab periods.
“I think it’s got a lot of merit,” Bowlsby said, “but there are some hooks in it. I don’t know how comfortable people are with, suddenly in the last three games and a bowl game, you go from being a guy who’s on the scout team to [a prominent role].”
Berry reiterated the logic that most redshirts would see action against a team’s four weakest opponents, not its four strongest.
When the next Tagovailoa arrives and preserves his eligibility by playing in just four games, even if he leads his team to the national title, Berry said, he’s got no problem.
Anyway, try to find a freshman with the ability to make a giant impact in four games or fewer who’s likely to stay in college more than four seasons. And even in such a scenario, who loses?
“It’s about giving coaches help with managing their rosters,” Penn State AD Sandy Barbour said. “We’re trying to incentivize students to stay the course. And giving them the ability to have some playing time, unrelated to an injury, I think it probably is a healthy thing.”
It may be coming this year to a stadium near you.
And as for transfers ...
Less likely to pass this year is a one-time transfer exception for undergraduate football and basketball players. The transfer working group will meet in February to continue plans for a proposal to bring uniformity and reform to transfer rules. The group’s priorities include the implementation of increased penalties for tampering and the elimination of tying scholarships to transfer eligibility.
A conversation about removing the requirement for players to sit out one year after transferring has received more publicity, but it has yet to gain traction even from student-athletes.
“Hearing feedback from coaches, they feel as if they would have to constantly recruit kids, even on their rosters,” said Noah Knight, who sits on the transfer working group and plays basketball for Missouri-Kansas City.
Coaches fear the one-time transfer exception, even if tied to academic standards, would create a mercenary environment in football and basketball.
“Our job now is to get people to lessen the anxiety and take a deep breath,” said South Dakota State AD Justin Sell, chair of the transfer group.
Nevertheless, a proposal, with or without the transfer exception, may be in the works soon. The council heard a report Tuesday from Sell and asked the NCAA Division I Board of Directors for flexibility to fast-track potential legislation.
“The goal right now is to find a uniform approach that is best for all students involved,” Miami’s James said, “and for the institutions and the integrity of the programs.”