By now you’ve probably heard — the NCAA did something good: football players can now participate in up to four games without burning their redshirt years. Players still have five years to play four, but now student athletes can also play a third of a regular season and still take a redshirt.
This creates a whole new set of strategic roster management options, particularly for freshmen who otherwise wouldn’t play until their second year on campus.
Meyer has always said that his goal is for every freshman to play and to use redshirts minimally. That’s never really happened, but now, barring injury, a freshman is almost assured of at least some playing time during his first season on campus, even if they are ultimately redshirt-bound.
Coaches can now take advantage of this rule by:
- Using otherwise redshirt-bound players in up to four cupcake games. Cupcake games can essentially be previews for the next season (or even next-next season), where freshmen can get valuable game reps. Conveniently for Ohio State, the Buckeyes play four teams this season that are ranked 80th or worse in the S&P+ projections (Oregon State, Rutgers, Tulane, and Maryland). Not only will this make next year’s team better when these freshmen have playing experience outside of scout team work, but it is also a preview for fans.
- Saving players for late in the season or the postseason. Imagine if Tua had come off the bench for Alabama in the national championship game, but he still redshirted last year. Under the new rule, a player could not play the entire season, then play in the last game of the regular season (i.e., Michigan), then in a conference championship (i.e., Wisconsin), and then in the playoff, but still take a redshirt. This is ideal for players who are insanely talented, but have established starters ahead of them, or for players who need some time to learn the system or add/drop some weight. If the light starts to come on for a freshman during the regular season, then there’s no harm in using them as essentially a secret weapon during the postseason.
- Using it as injury insurance. Now a late season injury doesn’t have to mean that an otherwise redshirt-bound player automatically loses their redshirt if they replace the injured starter.
- Of course, coaches have to be careful with using a player’s four games early in the season, because they might be needed as a late-season injury contingency or for the postseason. The Buckeyes face Oregon State (110th in the S&P+), Rutgers (84th), and Tulane (94th) in the first four games — there are likely to be significant opportunities for freshman to get some playing time early on. But then again, you might want to save their four games for when Ohio State faces Michigan State, Michigan, and any potential post-season opponent(s).
- This doesn’t just impact freshmen. While rare, sometimes upperclassmen will take a redshirt year depending on other depth chart concerns. Let’s say a true sophomore or junior wins a starting job out of fall camp, but then gets out-played by a younger player during the first four games of the season. That benched upperclassman could then still be redshirted if he loses his starting job.
- As a result, we’re likely to see more fall camp competitions get resolved during the regular season through live game action. Can’t decide who to start at right guard or at quarterback? Assuming they haven’t already used their redshirt year, let the players battle it out during those first four games. For Ohio State, TCU (22nd in the S&P+) should be the only challenge, and the player that ends up as the backup could still be redshirted.
- It’s especially huge for quarterbacks. Barring serious injury catastrophes, Matthew Baldwin isn’t going to play this season as Ohio State’s third-string quarterback. But now he can get playing time in at least four games to prep for potentially being in the two-deep next year. If this rule had been in place last season, Tate Martell could have played in four games and still redshirted instead of being a totally green second-stringer this year.
- Players with injuries from their previous seasons could recover for most of the regular season — like Master Teague or Matthew Baldwin — and then play when they are fully healthy.
- Run trick plays during big games. As we saw with Evan Spencer’s pass to Michael Thomas during the 2014 Sugar Bowl, Urban Meyer (or at least Tom Herman) isn’t above pulling out a trick play in critical moments. Now a team could play a player — who an opposing defense wouldn’t have any game film on — for a single trick play or in a special package. This could have been very effective with Tate Martell last season, and could be used for any player who played quarterback in high school but moved to a new position in college.
- There are a number of freshmen destined for special teams roles who would burn redshirts anyway. But there are also a number of players who won’t play on special teams, like some linemen, who can now get playing time while redshirting.
Here’s how the rule could impact specific players:
Tyreke Johnson and Josh Proctor
With Damon Webb off to the NFL, safety is one of the team‘s biggest concerns for 2018. No one seized the job through spring practice, despite Isaiah Pryor being the favorite. But Tyreke Johnson (.9876 in the 247 Composite) is a five-star defensive back and Josh Proctor (.964) is close behind him in the safety rankings. Either player could take all the time they need to learn the system, then take over a starting job later in the year, but still redshirt.
One of the most explosive players in the Buckeyes‘ 2018 class, Gill would probably be headed for a redshirt absent this rule. Parris Campbell, KJ Hill, and Demario McCall (who is a good comparison for Gill in terms of skill sets and rankings as all-purpose backs) are ahead of him at slot back. But now, Gill could be used later in the season as a “ringer” — an elite offensive weapon who could provide a spark towards the end of the season.
I mentioned this above, but Teague suffered a big injury during his senior season. While he participated in spring practice, recovery is an ongoing process. Now Teague can take more time to heal, with Dobbins and Weber entrenched in front of him, then be used later in the season to take some of the load off the co-starters at running back. This could work similarly to Georgia’s D’Andre Swift behind Nick Chubb and Sony Michel — Swift (who didn’t take a redshirt) really started to come on late in the season, gashing Auburn for a 64-yard touchdown run in the SEC Championship. Now Teague could fill a similar role but still have four more years of eligibility.
Similarly to Teague, Baldwin was injured during the Texas state championship game. Now Baldwin can recover throughout the season but still get extremely valuable playing time in his likely redshirt year.
It’s easy to imagine a world where Ruckert gets on the field early and does enough to justify burning his redshirt. Ruckert is Urban Meyer’s best tight end recruit at Ohio State, with pass catching skills unlike any other tight end on the roster. But unless Ruckert is used as a second, flexed-out tight end, Luke Farrell and Rashod Berry are likely ahead of him on the depth chart. But now Ruckert has a little wiggle room for playing while still preserving a redshirt.
Tommy Togiai and Taron Vincent
Defensive tackle is now as deep as it’s ever been during the Meyer era. Dre’Mont Jones, Robert Landers, JUCO transfer Antwuan Jackson Jr., Haskell Garrett, and Davon Hamilton are all excellent players who should help form the best Buckeye defensive line in years. But Tommy Togiai and Taron Vincent were two of the top three players at the position in the 2018 recruiting class. With so many talented players ahead of them, they could be saved for later in the season, providing even more depth and playmaking ability for Ohio State’s big late season games.