MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When the new college football redshirt rule was adopted by the NCAA in June 2018, there really wasn’t a negative word you could say about it. In a sport where the players rarely hold the cards, while coaches and schools have all the power, it was finally a player-friendly rule that was praised as a home run, slam dunk and touchdown.
Well, it took one year for the rule to take a few twists and turns, and for programs to find different ways to use it, whether it was intended or not.
The rule is simple — a player is allowed to participate in four games and still be able to take a redshirt. There are a variety of ways to use it, such as a player getting into the last four games of the year to get his feet wet for the next season, or a coach can put them out there to start the season to see if they’re ready for the big time or not. If not, they don’t waste an entire year of eligibility like in the past for playing just a few snaps.
A victim of the previous rule was West Virginia running back Martell Pettaway. Because of injuries to the rest of the backfield in 2016, Pettaway, who didn’t play in the first 10 games with the intent to redshirt, was forced into the game at Iowa State, burning his redshirt.
If the new rule existed then, Pettaway would currently be a redshirt-junior rather than a senior.
But even last season — the first year under the new rule — a couple situations arose that made some rub their chins. At Clemson, quarterback Kelly Bryant was benched in favor of Trevor Lawrence after the first four games. Bryant, who hadn’t redshirted yet in his career, decided to quit the team after playing just four games, preserving his redshirt and one more year of eligibility. He used that to graduate and head to Missouri as a grad transfer to play his final season, as WVU found out Sept. 7.
Oklahoma State wide receiver Jalen McCleskey played in four games to open last season with the Cowboys, but decided to transfer to Tulane to join his father, who is a coach with the Green Wave. McCleskey was criticized as a quitter, but the way the rule is laid out, it was completely within his right.
“This new rule, with how liberal it is to just get up and walk out, will show its ugly face in the future,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said last September.
Speaking of McCleskey, he caught a game-winning, 53-yard touchdown with just seconds left for Tulane against Houston on Sept. 19. That play may have sprung forth the next big unintended consequence of the redshirt rule.
McCleskey’s score dropped Houston and coach Dana Holgorsen to 1-3, putting the Cougars in a tough spot the remainder of the season to meet lofty goals established when Holgorsen was hired in January.
Last Monday, Houston announced star senior quarterback D’Eriq King plans to sit out the remainder of this season, redshirt and come back next year. Wide receiver Keith Corbin also said he planned on doing the same, and neither plan on transferring out this offseason.
“I’m staying here,” King said in a news conference. “If I wanted to leave Houston and go somewhere else, I could have. I think me being here is what I want to do, and it’s the best opportunity for me. I don’t think anybody will reach out to me (to convince me to transfer). Even if they do, they should know I’m staying here.”
Initially, when the rule was announced, it seemed like a great way to get freshman playing time without wasting an entire year of their college careers. But King is an established superstar that is having a stellar season, despite the Cougars poor start.
King just broke an NCAA record against Tulane for consecutive games of with at least one rushing and one passing touchdown. The previous record holder was Tim Tebow — that’s the caliber player King has been in his career.
So here is the issue — while I believe King had the final decision whether or not to take the rest of this year off, Holgorsen likely had a hand in the whole thing. While vehemently denying such, Holgorsen may already be looking ahead to 2020, giving him another year to get a foothold at Houston, while still having his stud behind center.
“I can assure you that whoever is saying that was not at our practice last night, was not in our meetings on Sunday night, these long coaches meetings that we had preparing for a game,” Holgorsen said. “We’re full go ahead on playing a game this weekend. So, that to me, is absolute nonsense.”
While this could completely backfire on Holgorsen and Houston — King could graduate and go elsewhere without having to sit out a season if he changes his mind — it appears that a completely player-friendly rule in a sport where players are always second or third fiddle is already being swayed to benefit coaches, as well.
Holgorsen can deny all he wants, but I have a tough time believing he had no hand in two of his best offensive players, in a year that hasn’t gotten off to the best start, were thinking about 2020 on their own.
And this won’t be the last time it happens. Copy cats run rampant across all sports, so other coaches are watching. As quickly as this was a rule for the players, it just as quickly turned back to the tide of coaches.
The more of that we have, the worse it is for college football.