Late last season, Georgia’s coaches were beginning to feel like offensive lineman Isaiah Wilson was ready to play. But considering there were only a handful of games left when the former five-star prospect began to grasp the college game, a decision was made to ensure his redshirt status.
Wilson didn’t play last season, so he could keep four remaining years of eligibility. But with a new NCAA rule on the books, Georgia will now have some leeway to put players on the field while maintaining redshirt eligibility for that particular year.
On Wednesday, the NCAA's Division I Council changed its redshirt rule by allowing football players to earn a redshirt while appearing in four games. Previously, one snap in one game meant the loss of a redshirt. This could significantly change how teams approach the playing of first-year freshmen late in seasons.
Coaches across college football will now have a new strategic element at their disposal.
On one hand, teams can play freshmen in four early-season games and decide whether they should continue playing throughout the year. On the other hand, coaches can hold off on entering a player into a game but decide to offer playing time late in a season without penalty.
In 2016, Mississippi’s Shea Patterson was redshirting when starting quarterback Chad Kelly tore his ACL. Three games remained on the schedule, and former head coach Hugh Freeze had a dilemma. He elected to roll with Patterson, who played the final three games that year. Under these new rules, Patterson still would have kept his redshirt.
That said, college football teams seemingly play more freshmen than ever before. Georgia, for instance, saw a slew of its class of 2017 freshmen see plays on special teams, including Monty Rice, Nate McBride, Richard LeCounte, Ameer Speed and Mark Webb.
Quarterback Jake Fromm, offensive lineman Andrew Thomas, running back D’Andre Swift, outside linebacker Walter Grant and defensive lineman Malik Herring all played a lot. Receiver Trey Blount saw regular time in a particular offensive set, and offensive guard Justin Shaffer played with the second-team in numerous mop-up situations.
Freshmen who did not play at all were Wilson, receiver Matt Landers, cornerback Eric Stokes, outside linebacker Robert Beal, offensive lineman Netori Johnson, safety Latavious Brini and safety Tray Bishop. Under the new rule, these are players the coaching staff may have given some game action late in the 2017 season.
Georgia also had two players who played slightly more than four games and one who went under that threshold. Defensive back Deangelo Gibbs appeared in six games, and defensive back William Poole played in five. Linebacker Jaden Hunter only played in the season opener.
Perhaps Georgia would have limited Gibbs and Poole to only four games with this rule in mind.
When looking at this year’s roster, a few players come to mind as who could benefit from this rule change.
Outside linebacker is a deep group, with Grant and D’Andre Walker the presumed starters at those spots. Beal, Keyon Richardson and freshman early enrollee Brenton Cox should factor into the rotation. Five-star prospect Adam Anderson may be too good to keep off of the field early on. Freshmen Quay Walker and Azeez Ojulari are also quality outside linebackers who might be the victim of the depth chart. If that's the case, being able to play them in four games without sacrificing a year of eligibility could do wonders for Smart’s coaching staff.
With four returning starters on the offensive line, this also will allow Georgia to get players such as Cade Mays, Trey Hill, Warren Ericson and Owen Condon some game reps as well.
At quarterback, Georgia could at least think about what to do with Justin Fields. But in the end, it would be hard-pressed to believe the Bulldogs will limit its backup quarterback to four games, especially if Georgia blows out the number of opponents it did a year ago. Fields will almost certainly play early and could even have an every-week package designed for him based on his skill set.