I went on vacation and the NCAA went and changed everything.
When my time off began a few weeks ago, it seemed a fait accompli that the NCAA’s Division I Council finally would change the transfer rules for the better—removing the ability for coaches or athletic directors to block a player from transferring on scholarship to anywhere that player chooses. The proposal that seemed far less likely to pass involved a change in the redshirt rule that would allow Division I football players to play up to four games in a season and still redshirt. That rule had been the pet project of American Football Coaches Association president Todd Berry for years, but even though it had the support of practically every coach in the country, Berry didn’t seem optimistic that university presidents, athletic directors and conference officials would agree.
But midway through June, Berry’s redshirt proposal passed. The transfer rules—and further tweaks to them that have yet to be made or may never be made—have received far more attention, but the redshirt rule change will have a much bigger impact. And the first place that could feel that impact is Tuscaloosa.
The Alabama quarterback competition remains one of the most fascinating in the sport’s history. Jalen Hurts is 26–2 as the Crimson Tide’s starter, but he was benched at halftime of the national title game against Georgia. Tua Tagovailoa, the freshman backup to Hurts, entered and led Alabama to a win and a title. Immediately, we wanted to know which of the two would start for the Tide in 2018. Spring practice might have given us a hint, but an injury to Tagovailoa’s throwing hand pushed the head-to-head competition into preseason camp. Meanwhile, Hurts’s father suggested his son would be “the biggest free agent in college football history” should he decide to transfer, and that assessment probably isn’t far from the truth. Both quarterbacks’ families were savvy enough to keep their guy out of a situation that would cost him a year of eligibility, so for much of this offseason the conversation centered on who would transfer before Alabama played its first game.
Thanks to the new rule, there is a plausible scenario where no one transfers before the season opener against Louisville. Saban prefers to drag his quarterback competitions into the season, and now he should have a chance to see how Hurts and Tagovailoa perform against live competition that includes Louisville, Arkansas State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Here’s how it could work.
Hurts is on pace to graduate in December. So he could play in up to four games for the Tide and still redshirt. If, after a few games, Tagovailoa is the clear No. 1, Hurts either could shut it down for the remainder of the season—with Mac Jones ascending to the backup spot—or Hurts could become the only-in-an-emergency option if Tagovailoa is lost for the season. (Because that also would make Hurts Alabama’s starter, which is his goal here.) If the 2018 season ends and Hurts has played in four or fewer games, he can count that year as a redshirt season. Then, after the season, he could leave as a graduate transfer and play immediately elsewhere with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
The situation wouldn’t be so cut-and-dried for Tagovailoa, who as an undergraduate would still have to sit out a calendar year if he played in games in 2018 and then transferred. It’s much smoother for Hurts, and if this situation works out in the way described above, it might provide a template for other quarterbacks who are on pace to graduate but also involved in quarterback competitions.
Hurts obviously doesn’t have to do this. He may want to play out the season either way, or he may want to transfer before the season begins so he doesn’t face the specter of leaving the team in midseason if he doesn’t win the job. The good news is he has options that will allow him to navigate this situation in a way that gives him the best chance to win the job and doesn’t cost him a season of eligibility.
The Alabama quarterback competition is an extreme example of how this rule might affect a team. Its greater impact could come late in seasons as coaches beef up their two-deep depth charts with freshmen who would have otherwise sat out the entire season. Coaches hated the idea of burning a player’s redshirt because they needed him for one or two games late in a season. Coaches also hated having to play certain players more snaps than they should have to save a younger player’s redshirt. Thanks to this rule, a team facing injuries among its defensive tackles could add a freshman into the rotation for the season’s final two or three games. Then the starters wouldn’t have to play every snap—a bad proposition from a competitive standpoint and a player safety standpoint—to preserve the youngster’s redshirt.
Also, teams that reach non-Playoff and non-New Year’s Six bowls could play all of their freshmen in the bowl games. This carrot might keep a redshirting player more engaged during the season. It also could blunt the negative impact of veteran players deciding to sit out bowl games by giving fans their first look at highly touted recruits whose only action has come at practice all season. It essentially would turn bowl practices into another spring practice—except with a game against another team at the end.
It would not, as its opponents feared, allow teams to hoard good players for four and a third seasons. If a cornerback only plays four games his freshman year and redshirts before turning into a star during his redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore seasons, he’s still probably going to turn pro after that redshirt sophomore season. With the best players, college coaches still have a major incentive to use them for an entire season as true freshmen. The players who can contribute on a college roster but will probably never play in the NFL will be the greatest beneficiaries of this change.
This is the rare rule that benefits both coaches and players equally. It makes so much sense that it’s a miracle it survived the NCAA legislation process. And now it will be fascinating to watch how it changes the game.