Devonta’e Henry-Cole got one carry. Chayden Johnston got one kick.
In the past two seasons, each of those University of Utah football players used a year of eligibility that was gone in an instant after a brief appearance in one game. That’s unfair. And that’s why the NCAA’s new rule is an enlightened act.
Beginning this season, athletes will be allowed to play in as many as four football games and be counted as a redshirt, retaining a year’s eligibility in the system that gives them five years to play four full seasons.
I like it, because provides another element of college football for me to write about, observing how coaches manage their rosters. Fans should love it, because some of them worry quite a bit about players’ running out of eligibility too soon. Coaches should embrace it, because they’ll no longer have to agonize about whether or not to exhaust a player’s eligibility in one desperate moment.
That’s what happened with Henry-Cole in October 2016, when the Utes were short-staffed at running back and he ran once for 2 yards at Oregon State. Coach Kyle Whittingham would say later, “It’s a shame. We hate to waste a year on a kid with with one carry.”
Johnston attempted the Utes’ first field goal of 2017, then was replaced by Matt Gay. He never took the field again as a freshman. The opportunity remains for Johnston to redshirt in 2018, and the new system would allow him to make an occasional appearance while maintaining three more years of eligibility.
Nothing seems to exercise fans quite like these one-time showings that cost players a year. It happened to BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum in October 2016 when he took two kneel-down snaps at Michigan State and, via Twitter, felt compelled to calm fans who were “freaking out about me ‘burning’ my redshirt.”
Mangum explained he was already 23 and never intended to redshirt that season, which ended with him starting the Poinsettia Bowl after Taysom Hill was injured.
Ute coach Ron McBride inserted quarterback Alex Smith into an October 2002 game at San Diego State, basically wasting his freshman year. Ute fans were outraged; so were Smith’s family members. That issue became moot two years later when Smith entered the NFL draft with one year of eligibility remaining — instead of two. But his experience shows how the new rule could come into play.
Coaches will have multiple options about how to use those potential four games for a player. The bottom line is they’ll never have to hesitate about deploying anyone, whether that’s early in the season in a blowout of an FCS opponent, on a one-play emergency basis in the middle of the year or in a bowl game. Nothing should stop them from thinking of creative ways to use players, or to go deeper into the roster when the starters become worn down late in the season.
Technically, any player who has not previously redshirted is subject to the four-game opportunity. The rule could help an athlete who gets hurt in September, for example, and is able to come back in November or just for a bowl game.
The biggest benefit of the rule is keeping young players engaged in the program. If they know they’re available to appear in a few games during what otherwise would be a year of practicing and not playing, they’re more likely to feel like part of the team.
Coaches will have some obligation to use all 85 of their scholarship players for up to four games, though. Otherwise, those who are left out may feel disenfranchised.
So this thing is slightly complicated, but I’ll enjoy watching it unfold. The immediate application for Utah involves freshman quarterback Jack Tuttle. If he’s the backup to Tyler Huntley, as presumably will happen to begin the season, Whittingham and his staff will have to weigh the value of playing him in some early games vs. saving him in the event Huntley is injured (Jason Shelley, who already redshirted, also is in the QB mix).
My suggestion would be to use Tuttle against Weber State and Northern Illinois. If he ends up being needed for more than four games, that would become good use of a year’s eligibility, anyway.
BYU has even more variables in a four-QB derby, with only Beau Hoge having redshirted. In any case, there’s no reason to worry initially about how much freshman Zach Wilson or sophomore Joe Critchlow plays, and returned missionary Jaren Hall also could get a look in an occasional package of plays as a fifth option.
What’s weird is that even Mangum could play in a few games and still redshirt, at age 25. But if that happens, he might be the one who’s freaking out.