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  • Putting a select few upperclassmen on transfer watch in late September is an acceptable consequence of new redshirt rules that benefit both coaches and players.
By Andy Staples
September 25, 2018

Mike Gundy had the greatest incentive to rip the new rule and the side effect that has emerged the past few weeks. The Oklahoma State coach had just lost a significant contributor in receiver Jalen McCleskey to the new redshirt rule, which allows players to redshirt as long as they’ve played four or fewer games. McCleskey, a senior, played in the Cowboys’ first four games and then—after catching 15 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns—decided to leave the team so he can redshirt this season and play somewhere else next season as a graduate transfer.

Yet Gundy didn’t blast the player, and he offered only constructive criticism of the rule.

“He’s been awesome. Great young man. Great family,” Gundy told reporters Monday. “He just didn’t feel like he was getting the ball enough and wants to save his year and sit to transfer to another school. If that’s what guys on the team want to do, then that’s what we’re going to allow them to do.”

Asked if this was an unintended consequence of a rule designed to give coaches flexibility so they didn’t have to burn players’ redshirts late in a season, Gundy pointed out a few potential tweaks going forward. It would be nice, he said, if such departures weren’t a threat to count against a team’s Academic Performance Rate—a measure used by the NCAA to ensure athletes are making satisfactory academic progress that also includes scholarship penalties for programs when the numbers dip too low—if a player leaves in the middle of a season to take advantage of this rule. And Gundy is correct about that. His program shouldn’t be penalized because a player wanted a better opportunity elsewhere.

But neither Gundy nor any of the other coaches came out strong against this particular consequence of the rule for two reasons:

• They all wanted this rule passed.

• It will benefit their teams far more than it will hurt their teams.

American Football Coaches Association president Todd Berry, who began working in 2001—when he was the head coach at Army—on changing the redshirt rule and finally succeeded in June, pointed out that coaches discussed this rule for years before it actually passed. And each time they discussed the rule, those coaches did a cost/benefit analysis. They were aware that some players might leave midseason and pushed for the rule to be passed anyway. “This number was going to be so minimal in relation to the benefit as a whole,” Berry said Tuesday.

That’s probably why Oregon coach Mario Cristobal didn’t get too upset when he learned this week that senior tailback Taj Griffin planned to leave and play his final season elsewhere. “It’s playing time oriented,” Cristobal told reporters. “Anytime a student-athlete has a decision to make that’s in the best interest of himself, we support it 100%, so we do.”

Coaches probably don’t need to worry too much about losing players to the rule because it offers the biggest benefit to players who have either graduated or are a few classes away from graduation. The graduate transfer rule allows them to play immediately after transferring, which means the redshirt rule now allows seniors who haven’t redshirted to dip a toe in their senior season and decide if the role they have is the one they want in their final college seasons. Most seniors who play aren’t going to be unhappy with their roles, so most won’t leave. But on rare occasions, they will. (And since they aren’t playing or aren’t getting as many touches as they’d like, their departures probably won’t sting that much.)

What coaches will keep an eye on is whether the undergraduate transfers who leave in midseason—such as receiver Nate Craig-Myers, who left Auburn last week—receive waivers from the NCAA to play right away. At the moment, such players have little incentive to leave midseason because while they may get a redshirt for this season, they still would have to sit out all or part of next season. (Remember, quarterback Blake Barnett left Alabama during the 2016 season and enrolled quickly at Arizona State so that he’d be eligible midseason in 2017.) If the NCAA grants more waivers, then players might be more likely in later years to leave as undergraduates in midseason to preserve that year of eligibility. If the NCAA is stingy with the waivers, then only graduates and potential graduates would benefit from using the redshirt rule.

We may learn of more players who plan to transfer in the next few weeks. Some teams won’t play their fourth game until this weekend, and some players may have missed games and haven’t hit the four-game threshold yet. Still, the focus of transfer watch this week will be on two quarterbacks whose teams have already played four games and who don’t appear to be headed anywhere.

We spent much of the offseason debating whether Jalen Hurts would leave Alabama if it became apparent that Tua Tagovailoa was the Crimson Tide’s quarterback of the future. Tagovailoa has unquestionably proven that—and then some—but Hurts seems to have given us his answer by the way he’s handled himself in the three games since Tagovailoa was named the starter. Nothing about Hurts’s play or his body language suggests he’s thinking about doing anything except playing the rest of the season for Alabama. Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN’s Chris Low last week that he intends to play Hurts the rest of the season, and there has been no indication that Hurts feels otherwise.

The situation that seems more intriguing—but may not be—is the one at Clemson. On Monday, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney named freshman Trevor Lawrence the starting quarterback for the Tigers’ game against Syracuse on Saturday. Lawrence supplanted senior Kelly Bryant, who has gone 16–2 as Clemson’s starter since last season. On Tuesday, Swinney said his Monday meeting with Bryant was very emotional. Swinney also said he gave Bryant the day off practice—which prompted more questions about whether Bryant might leave.

And if Bryant decided he wanted to leave, Swinney would understand. “Certainly if he walked in here today and said, ‘Hey Coach, I don’t want to play the rest of the year unless you’ve got to have me,’ well O.K., if that’s what you want to do I’m all for it. I love Kelly,” Swinney told reporters Tuesday. “I would be disappointed in that because we need him. But I wouldn’t judge him for that.”

But Swinney doesn’t think Bryant will leave. “If I was worried about that or if I was deceitful in some way, I could have held the coaches up and said, ‘Let’s make sure we start him for Syracuse. That way he’s got no option,’” Swinney told reporters. “I don’t think like that. I don’t operate that way.”

Until Bryant enters another game or announces his intention to stay, the questions will linger. And this kind of Week 5 personnel intrigue might become a new annual tradition.

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