In early November of 2016, Hugh Freeze had a program-shifting decision to make.
Chad Kelly had just torn his ACL, leaving Ole Miss without its star quarterback at a time when it needed to win two of its last three games to become bowl eligible. The obvious replacement was five-star true freshman Shea Patterson, the country’s top quarterback prospect. The problem was that Freeze had entered the season with every intention of redshirting Patterson and preserving a year of eligibility for his QB of the future. NCAA rules dictated that the moment Patterson entered a game, his four-year eligibility clock would start ticking.
Freeze had to decide whether or not to burn a year of his star quarterback’s eligibility or face the ominous prospect of a bowl-less season.
Freeze gambled and the redshirt came off. But after leading a legendary comeback against Texas A&M, Patterson wasn’t enough to beat Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Both the redshirt and bowl bid were lost.
Second-year Rebels head coach Matt Luke will have an easier decision to make if his starter goes down late this year. In June, the NCAA approved a new rule that allows a player to participate in up to four games without burning their redshirt.
The first known redshirt came in 1937 when Nebraska linebacker Warren Alfson, realizing he was undersized and stuck behind older guys on the depth chart, asked his coach to let him practice with the team but not play. The coaches gave him a spare, unnumbered jersey (Nebraska red, of course) to wear in practice and a year later Alfson emerged as a three-year starter and two-time All-American.
The practice of redshirting is now ubiquitous in college football. The NCAA allows players a five-year window in which to play four seasons. By redshirting a true freshman, a coach can allow the young player to put on size, practice with his teammates and learn the playbook without spending a year of eligibility.
Which brings us around to Luke and his phenom freshman QB, Matt Corral. The gem of Luke’s 2017 recruiting class, Corral has the size and arm talent to be an SEC star. For this year, though, he’s stuck behind senior Jordan Ta’amu, who had a breakout 2017 after Patterson’s season-ending injury. Patterson transferred to Michigan this offseason, leaving Corral as the heir-apparent.
Ta’amu’s presence on the roster provides a situation much like what Freeze had with Kelly and Patterson in 2016: a proven senior quarterback who can hold the reigns while the star freshman learns the ropes... and hopefully saves a year of eligibility. It’s also not hard to imagine a scenario in which Ta’amu goes down at the end of the season, prompting a decision on whether or not to turn to the frosh.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo has made it clear he’s prepared to play Corral if need-be. But with the new rule, the freshman could come in late in the season and still hold onto a year of eligibility.
“If he only plays in four games, that would be great with the new rule, he will get a redshirt,” Longo told the Ole Miss Spirit this week. “But if he needs to play in more games, we will play him. He is our backup quarterback and we will use him accordingly. A redshirt would be a bonus, but if we need him, he will play.”
Perhaps more importantly, the new rule provides Corral the opportunity to get his feet wet as a freshman without burning a year. Longo is intent on getting him game reps this season, which in past year’s would be mutually exclusive with a redshirt. The new rule provides the potential for the best of both worlds: Corral gets second-half playing time against up to four non-con opponents but still comes back in 2019 with four years to play.
It’s a game-changer for college football that should go a long way in developing young talent, particularly quarterbacks.
“The majority of the kids who come to college now are so far ahead physically, they’re closer to being ready to play,” an unnamed SEC coach told ESPN in June. “The thing that is the unknown is how the kid is going to handle college mentally. Those are the things that usually hold some guys back. The only way you can determine that is to put them out there and play.”